Hitting Prowess Drives the Thrillcats

Over the past several weeks, the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats have been a prominent feature in both Carolina League and national baseball news. Lynchburg’s on-field host, Kestrel Kerl, has awarded the team the moniker of “Thrillcats” and the team and the player continue to live up to this name.

All the excitement began with the continuation of what turned out to be a 50-game hitting streak for catcher Francisco Mejia. The streak began May 25 while Mejia was a member of the Low-A Lake County Captains and continued at Lynchburg under the watch of hitting coach Larry Day.

“You try to keep him focused on the things that matter and that is his daily preparation as both a hitter and a catcher,” said Day. “Rigo Beltran, our pitching coach, does a phenomenal job of educating him on the night’s starting pitcher so that he knows what he’ll be seeing, and what he’ll be calling as the catcher.”

The streak tied Otto Pahlman of Danville in 1922, for the fourth longest in Minor League history. Mejia’s streak is the longest in what could be considered modern Minor League ball. He extended the streak to 50 games on Saturday, August 13, on a somewhat controversial call. What had originally been ruled a two-base error was later changed to a double after the game, allowing his streak to grow to 50 before it finally came to an end on a Sunday afternoon against Winston-Salem.

During the streak, Mejia hit .380, including 25 extra base hits and 21 multi-hit games, with the streak actually extending over 81 days. In addition to earning a promotion from Low-A to High-A during the streak, he also attended the Midwest League All-Star game, the Futures Game in San Diego, and was a key player named in the Indians attempt to acquire catcher Jonathan Lucroy from the Milwaukee Brewers.

Of course Mejia was only the first Hillcats player to garner recognition as the team surged back into the lead for the Northern Division second half title in the Carolina League.

Teammate and first baseman Bobby Bradley, who has occupied the cleanup spot in the Lynchburg lineup this season, has turned August into his personal power playground.

On the first day of August, Bradley led the league at 19 home runs and 77 RBI. As August heated up, so did Bradley. These two triple-crown stats now rest at 29 homers and 101 RBI, both leading the Carolina League. During this run he earned Player of the Week honors once, hit a home run in three consecutive games, and had a two-homer game for the first time this season.

“It was a good experience,” he said about his first multi-homer game of the season. “At the end of the day you just have to forget about it and focus on the next game.”

This attitude, take it one day at a time, pervades the Hillcats team and contributes to their success, as they have learned to forget a poor at bat, a miscue in the field, or a bad game and come back the next day energized and ready to play hard.

To cap off this power exhibition, Bradley was named the Carolina League MVP, following in the footsteps of last year’s Hillcats first baseman and fellow Indians prospect Nellie Rodriguez.

“He’s got a great work ethic, and that’s something that people don’t get to see,” said coach Day about the time effort Bradley devotes to being prepared for each and every game.

In addition to Bradley’s recent Player of the Week honors, teammate and left-handed starting pitcher Luis Lugo garnered matching pitching honors in the Carolina League for the same week.

In earning pitcher of the week honors, the second time he has won a pitcher of the week award in his career, he shut down Northern Division rival Potomac. The Hillcats have been jousting with the Nationals for the second half lead for most of the summer. In his one outing he allowed only three base runners over six innings to tally his eighth quality start of the season, while striking out five.

Following on the heels of Bradley’s weekly honors, second baseman Tyler Krieger followed Bradley’s winning performance for the week that followed, and outfielder Dorssys Paulino was named the most recent Carolina League Player of the Week as a hitter, giving the Hillcats the last three winners.

For Krieger, 2016 has seen him earn the first awards of his brief professional career. He was a Midwest League All-Star before getting promoted to Lynchburg. During the week in which his performance earned him the league honors for best hitter he raised his batting average 21 points, to .311, and he has maintained it at that level since.

“He’s a very educated hitter,” said Day. “He’s had good coaching and instruction throughout his career. He had actually been hitting with Tim Laker, our current AA hitting coach, since he was a kid. He has a very flat bat path which gives him a chance to get hits even when he’s not perfectly on time.”

The final recognition goes to Hillcats outfielder Connor Marabell. This won’t show in the league record books for player of the week, or for postseason all-star honors, but in Sunday afternoon’s contest against the Potomac Nationals, it was Marabell who had an awesome performance and brought home excitement of the name “Thrillcats”.

Having lost the first two games of the series, putting Lynchburg back into a tie with Potomac in the standings, the Sunday contest was important for team morale as well as giving them a one-game lead as the season entered its final week.

In this game, Lynchburg and Potomac would battle back and forth. Potomac scored single runs in the second, third, and fourth innings. Lynchburg would tie the score, but Potomac continued to battle back. As the bottom of the ninth frame began, the Nats held a 7-4 advantage on the Hillcats.

Potomac’s All-Star closer Ryan Brinley had been summoned to the mound. In short order the Hillcats had men on the corners with one out, pressuring Brinley to bear down and execute his pitches.

He induced a ground ball to second base by Taylor Murphy, scoring the runner from third in a fielder’s choice. Catcher Alex Monsalve then hit a grounder that escaped the gloves on the right side of the infield and reached Nats right fielder Drew Vettleson, putting runners at the corners again and bringing Marabell to the plate.

Marabell already had two doubles to his credit on the afternoon, and on Brinley’s second pitch he got way out in front and hit a high looping fly deep into foul territory. The crack of his bat on this foul ball sent energy and excitement running through the crowd, and cheers for Marabell intensified.

“We work on the timing side of things,” said Day about what he had been working with Marabell on since his promotion from Low-A Lake County. “Doing things physically to build on the fundamental movements of his swing.”

The next pitch Marabell received stayed between the lines, at least for a short time. With the crack of his bat he lofted a deep, rapidly receding, fly ball over the right field fence for a three-run homer to give the Hillcats a walk-off 8-7 victory and a one-game lead in the standings over the Potomac Nationals.

Marabell’s timing had been perfect. He had capped a 4-for-5 day at the plate with a game-winning three-run home run and had a season-high nine total bases on the afternoon.

With only six games remaining in the Carolina League regular season, the “Thrillcats” get to play the top two teams in the Southern Division to finish out the year. Two more games remain in Myrtle Beach after Tuesday’s 1-0 extra inning loss, and then four at home against Salem to wind up their season.

Each day, a different Hillcats player steps up and the Lynchburg fans hope that this season’s excellence will end in a long run through the playoffs to a Carolina League title.

Photo: Lathan Goumas/The News and Advance

David Freier was born in Brooklyn New York in 1966 less than a decade after the Dodgers had departed the very same borough. His first professional baseball game was at Yankee stadium and to this day he and his father still argue over who started for the Orioles that day (his father says Mike Cuellar, while he insists it was Jim Palmer). Being a lover of underdogs he naturally became a Mets fan. He grew up in Montclair New Jersey which had the advantage of being home to two baseball legends, Yogi Berra and Larry Doby, as well as having a local college which regularly held baseball card conventions that fed his baseball card hobby. While attending college at the University of Richmond he and some of his friends attended a Richmond Braves game in the then (1985) brand new Diamond stadium, and now home to the Richmond Flying Squirrels. This began what has become a passion for the minor leagues of baseball. During his 10 years as a Richmond resident he and his future wife developed an affinity for the Braves, especially when Richmond fan favorite Francisco Cabrera scored the winning run to knock the Pirates from contention and vault the Braves into the World Series of 1991. During extensive travels he has rooted for the Minnesota Twins, Minneapolis Loons, St. Paul Saints, Iowa Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, Erie Sea Wolves, Berkshire Bears and of course the Lynchburg Hillcats. To date he has visited over 110 different baseball parks in which he has seen a game. He joined the Society for American Baseball Research in 2000 and has been a member ever since, where he participates on the Biographical and Minor Leagues committees when time permits. In his day job he is an Associate Professor of Biomedical Science at Lynchburg College in Virginia.

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