Hillcats Clinch Trip to Mills Cup Championship; Hillcats 3, Nationals 1

More than five innings of shutout baseball from starter Sean Brady and a two-run home run from Yu-Cheng Chang late pushed Lynchburg past Potomac, 3-1, to win the Carolina League’s Northern Division Championship Series.

The Hillcats advance to the Mills Cup Championship and will face the Myrtle Beach Pelicans on Saturday. The Pelicans knocked off the Salem Red Sox late on Friday night, 2-1, to clinch their third consecutive Southern Division Championship Series victory.

Each team delivered three scoreless innings from City Stadium on Friday night as Brady and Potomac’s Matt Crownover were locked in an early pitchers’ duel. After Brady sat down the Nationals in order in the fourth to give him eight straight retired, his offense gave him something to work with in the bottom half.

Anthony Santander doubled to left off of Crownover to start the frame and advanced to third on a fly to left by Thursday night’s hero, Bobby Bradley. Dorssys Paulino chipped in with a fly to right, deep enough to score Santander on the sacrifice fly while giving Lynchburg a 1-0 lead.

Brady ran into some trouble in the top of the fifth. Drew Vettleson singled and moved to second one out later on a single by Matthew Page. D.K. Carey grounded to second, moving both runners up 90 feet. With the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position, Brady struck out Victor Robles looking to end the inning.

After their run, the “Thrillcats” went cold at the plate, as Crownover retired nine straight after the Santander double. That ended in the seventh after Lynchburg reliever Leandro Linares retired his fifth straight batter in relief of Brady. Bradley reached on an error by catcher Raudy Read, leading to a pitching change on the mound with Gilberto Mendez coming on to replace Crownover after six-plus innings of one-run work. Mendez struck out Paulino, but Chang delivered a big fly to right off of the video board. The two-run shot put Lynchburg up by a 3-0 score.

Things got a little dicey for the ‘cats in the eighth with Mitch Brown on in relief of Linares. He walked the leadoff man Page, who was forced at second on a grounder by Carey. Robles singled, ending Brown’s night. Billy Strode entered and got a grounder to force the runner at second for the second out and Trevor Frank took over with runners on the corners and struck out Kelvin Gutierrez to end the threat.

Frank returned in the ninth, looking for the multi-inning save. Read lined to second baseman Tyler Krieger before a double by Osvaldo Abreu. Vettleson went down swinging for the second out, but Bryan Mejia kept the game alive with a double to right, scoring Abreu to make it a 3-1 Hillcats lead. With the tying run at the plate in Page, Frank struck him out looking to end it, clinching the division series and earning the team a trip to the championship round.

Brady got the win with five and one-third innings of scoreless baseball, allowing three hits and a walk while striking out seven. Crownover took a tough loss, allowing two runs (one earned) on three hits with a pair of walks and four strikeouts in six-plus innings for the P-Nats. Frank allowed the run in the ninth, but struck out three of the four batters he retired to earn the save.

With the Game 3 series-clinching win, Lynchburg advances to the Mills Cup Championship Series for the first time since 2012, when the Hillcats won the championship. There is no rest given, however, as the team will open the best-of-five championship series Saturday night in Myrtle Beach. Following Carolina League rules, the Southern Division champion will host the first two games of the series with 2016 being an even-numbered year. The Hillcats will host the remaining games of the series at home in Lynchburg.

Game 1 is scheduled for a 6:05 PM ET start from TicketReturn.Com Field in Myrtle Beach. Twenty-one-year-old right-hander Erick Leal (11-4, 3.13 ERA in 2016) will have the honor of starting the championship series opener for the Pelicans. The Hillcats had not announced a starter for their club at the time of this story.

Photo: MiLB.com

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