The High-A Lynchburg Hillcats have stormed out to a 29-14 record, good for first place in the Carolina League’s Northern Division. Their strong team effort has been just one part to the stellar start for the whole Cleveland Indians farm system. Given the #1 organizational ranking in a recent MiLB article by Sam Dykstra, the top four Indians farm clubs sported a combined 98-50 record. Only the Texas Rangers organization came close with 94 wins.
The past two weeks have been indicative of their overall season. Swept in a three-game series at the rival Salem Red Sox, they lost leads in the first two games from poor bullpen performance, before moving on to Zebulon, North Carolina. The Hillcats took three out of four games from the Mudcats before returning home for a rematch with Salem. With the wickedly hot Andrew Benintendi having been promoted to AA, the Hillcats only had to concern themselves with the remaining two top prospects in the Red Sox organization in Yoan Moncada and Rafael Devers.
The first game of the series was postponed due to rain, continuing a series of postponements and double headers during the month of May due to torrential rain and the resultant bad field conditions. Finally on Wednesday, May 18, the Hillcats got their rematch in a doubleheader.
In game one Mitch Brown was matched up against Salem’s Matt Kent. Brown only lasted a single inning, allowing three earned runs on four walks, a leadoff base-on-balls to Moncada, and a single. The damage was minimized by strong defense by third baseman Paul Hendrix, who leaped high to snow cone a bounding hop and prevent an extra base hit by Devers.
“I’m definitely comfortable at third,” said Hendrix, a college shortstop who has played second, short, and third in his four years in the Cleveland system. “Third base is a lot faster. It’s more reaction than movement, and you can only practice so much.”
By comparison, Salem’s Kent was dealing. He kept the Hillcats hitters stymied, allowing only five base runners in six innings while striking out six.
As the bottom of the seventh inning began the situation looked grim for the Hillcats. Getting revenge for the previous week’s sweep might have to wait for another opportunity, but Salem had replaced Kent with reliever German Taveras, and much like Brown in the first inning, Taveras had difficulty getting outs.
Right fielder Mike Papi opened the frame with a single. One batter later he came home on a double by Daniel Salters and the Hillcats were off to the races. Anthony Santander capped the scoring with a double to drive home Mark Mathias and Greg Allen, tying the game at 4-4. It would be Mathias who was to turn out as the hero of the game.
His double in the seventh inning helped to prolong the inning, and knocked Taveras from the game.
“I was looking for something over the plate to hit,” Mathias said about the double. “Recently I’ve been taking a more right-center approach and I’ve been late swinging on a couple of balls. I just shifted to middle left and got a good pitch to hit.”
Mathias would again single in the eighth inning, driving home teammate David Armendariz and tying the game at 5-5. He would return to the batter’s box in the tenth inning, this time singling to left field to again drive home Armendariz and give the Hillcats their first walk-off win of the season.
The Hillcats would sweep the doubleheader with reliever Nick Pasquale drawing the start in the second game. The Hillcats used eight of the 13 active pitchers on their roster that night, then swapped one of those with AA Akron as Cole Sulser got promoted and Antonio Romero was sent down to Lynchburg.
“It was good to get the sweep,” said hero Mathias about the doubleheader. “He (Kent) was locating in the first game and kept us off balance the whole night.”
The Hillcats tried for the sweep in the third game of the series, but pitching mishaps also played a significant role. In this game, the Carolina League’s top pitcher, Julian Merryweather, was only able to pitch two frames, leading to a succession of relievers. With the game in the eighth inning, Lynchburg was forced to bring reserve outfielder Armendariz in to pitch the ninth and tenth innings. He acquitted himself well, but allowed an unearned run to Salem that turned out to be the game winner. If the Hillcats had been able to score and extend the game, third baseman Hendrix was warming in the bullpen to follow Armendariz to the mound.
Even with the recent pitching woes for the Hillcats, it has been their bats that have kept them winning games. Hendrix recently returned to the active roster from a nagging groin pull in spring training. The 24-year-old third baseman from North Richland Hills, Texas, began his season with a bang.
In his first at bat he was hit by a pitch, and then homered two innings later for his first official hit of the season. He continued his hot hitting on the Hillcats’ trip to Myrtle Beach, smashing an eighth inning grand slam to give Lynchburg the lead and the eventual victory. Hendrix is one of a number of Hillcats players who have started off the season strong. Through 13 games, he has a .279 batting average, two home runs, and nine RBI in 43 at bats.
Much of the teams’ success is due to the work of Hillcats hitting coach Larry Day, now in his second season with the Cleveland organization. He moved up from Low-A Lake County along with many of the current Hillcats players. Day was drafted by the Yankees and spent one year in the minors before becoming a coach at Vanderbilt for several years, and then transitioning into the professional coaching ranks.
“As a player I was lucky enough to be around a lot of different voices and coaches, whether it be in college or the Yankees system,” shared Day. “While at Vanderbilt I had a chance to work alongside Josh Holliday, now the head coach at Oklahoma State, and Travis Jewett, who remains the Commodores hitting coach.”
Day’s tutelage has produced results.
“I view our group of hitters as thirteen individual guys,” said Day. “What we teach organizationally, with hitting coordinator Jim Rickon, sets the tone and creates some nice ideas and a philosophy of controlled aggression.”
As a team, Hillcats hitters lead the Carolina League in runs scored with 245, doubles with 89, home runs with 37, and RBI with 225. They also lead the league in walks (202) and strikeouts (358). In offensive percentages they are battling rival Salem for the lead. The Hillcats have a team triple slash line of .255/.355/.399 heading into play Tuesday night, while Salem sports .270/.354/.390 triple slash numbers. These numbers and the league leader fluctuate based on each days contest.
The success of the Hillcats offense is summed up well by second baseman Mathias.
“It’s a great environment to be hitting in every single day,” he said. “Coming in early to the cage, everyone has their job and everyone works as part of the group. We all pitch in and help, no one tries to do too much.”
Power has been a signature of the Hillcats, with Indians top prospect Bobby Bradley leading the team with ten home runs and fellow first round pick Papi close behind with seven. A further sign of the success of Hillcats hitters is the recent promotion of Taylor Murphy, who was leading the team in batting average before heading to AA Akron. All three contributed and have benefited from Day’s coaching methods.
“We identify what our guys do good and identify what each different guy needs to do,” says Day. “There are going to be different strengths for different guys. For the most part I try and really keep the mechanical aspect simple and blend that in with what opposing pitchers are trying to do to them.”
So far, this has led to a very successful start to the season. Lynchburg will play Salem eight more times between now and the mid-season All-Star break and these games will serve as a bellwether for the team as it tries to capture the Carolina League’s Northern Division first half crown.
Photo (Santander): Lathan Goumas/The News and Advance