Hillcats Capture Carolina League North First Half Crown

Some members of the Cleveland Indians organization are already popping champagne in celebration of the postseason.

The Lynchburg Hillcats (40-22, .645) claimed the Carolina League North Division first half crown on Sunday during their 3-2 win over the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. The Potomac Nationals lost their game, reducing Lynchburg’s magic number to zero and sending the Hillcats to the playoffs in September.

Starting pitcher and top 30 Indians prospect Luis Lugo led the way with seven strong innings on the mound, allowing one run on three hits, no walks, and striking out six. David Speer earned the win in relief, his third of the season, after allowing the tying run in the eighth for the blown save. That run, and the Myrtle Beach run in the fifth inning, were both courtesy of home runs by Gioskar Amaya.

With a tie game heading to the bottom of the eighth, All-Star Yu-Cheng Chang took over at the plate and on the bases to manufacture his game-winning run. He singled on a soft fly, moved to second on a walk by Claudio Bautista, picked off third on his own as fellow All-Star Daniel Salters struck out for the first out, and scored on a throwing error by Myrtle Beach catcher Erick Castillo. The Hillcats would load the bases in the inning, but their third of six All-Stars, Greg Allen, grounded into the unconventional 3-2-3 double play to end the inning.

“That was on Yu,” said manager Mark Budzinski following the game in a quote from The News and Advance. “He got a good jump and he went, but that was all him.

“We’ve been aggressive all year, and we’ll continue to do that. We want guys to, you know, learn their limits and take risks here and there.”

Speer got three groundouts in the ninth to secure the victory as the club was on their way to celebrate their first half title.

The Hillcats scored a pair in the second inning to take the early lead. Allen walked, moved to third on a single by Taylor Murphy, and scored on a fielder’s choice by Anthony Santander. Santander later stole second and scored on an RBI-double by Chang. Amaya cut the lead to one with the first of his two home runs on the day in the fifth inning off of Lugo.

The loss by the Nats secured a playoff spot for the Hillcats for the fifth straight season and their second in a row as Indians’ affiliates. It was their first first-half title since 2012, coincidentally the last time the Hillcats won the Carolina League Championship.

The Hillcats lost their season opener and three of their first seven games before emerging as one of the more dominant teams across the minor league landscape. They won ten straight games before splitting the last six of April to finish the month a strong 17-6. They followed with a 16-12 month, losing at one point four straight to start a road trip through Salem and Carolina. Instead of letting it set a new tone, they turned it into momentum, concluding the seven-game trip by winning the first three games of a five-game winning streak to offset their longest losing skid of the season. Their schedule for the month was erratic, as they had four different home contests in the month cancelled either by rains or the aftermath of earlier storms.

With Sunday’s win, the Hillcats improved to 7-4 in June. Their eight and a half game lead is tied for the largest in the minors, matching that of the Double-A Southern League North Division first-half champs, the Jackson Generals, the only other minor league squad to clinch a postseason berth so far.

Lynchburg has three more to play at home against the Carolina Mudcats before wrapping up the first half with four on the road against the Frederick Keys. The club will then look forward to the All-Star break, where six players will represent the team, and then it is on to the second half of play.

“We have a great team environment in there. Everybody gets along well, and you know, everybody’s working hard,” shared Lugo after his outing in a story on MiLB.com. “The pieces come together at the end of the day, and that’s what it takes to win.”

When asked about the first-half title, Lugo shared the team’s outlook moving forward.

“That’s in the past. Now we’re going to focus on the second half and trying to win that, too.”

Photo: MiLB.com

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