The Postseason Pendulum of the Hillcats

The High-A Lynchburg Hillcats had clinched a guaranteed playoff berth by winning the first-half Northern Division title in the Carolina League.

The team fought valiantly to win the Northern Division second half title. That victory would insure all three divisional series games be played at Calvin Falwell Field in Lynchburg.

Alas, the Hillcats finished the second half with the identical 39-31 record of Potomac. With Potomac holding the tiebreaker – head-to-head wins – this meant the first game of the Northern Division Championship would take place at Pfitzner Stadium in Potomac.

Both teams had struggled down the stretch. Lynchburg held a one-game advantage entering the season’s final week following a walk-off win at home against Potomac and closer Ryan Brinley thanks to a three-run home run by center fielder Connor Marabell.

In that final home series against Potomac, Marabell had raised his batting average more than 70 points, from .209 to .281 and punctuated the stretch with the walk-off home run, his first home run in a Hillcats jersey.

“Anytime you go through a promotion there’s an adjustment period,” said Hillcats manager Mark Budzinski about Marabell’s performance. “He’s a hard-nosed guy who had a new position thrown at him, center field. Learning the league and what pitchers are trying to do to you takes some time. He’s getting there now.”

The Hillcats dropped the first game of the divisional series in Potomac, losing 7-0 against the Nationals. Returning home for Game 2, the team mustered a performance that could be ranked among the best ever played at Calvin Falwell Field.

In a must-win game for Lynchburg the score see-sawed back and forth between the Hillcats and the Nationals.

Poromac scored first with a single run in the bottom of the third inning. Starter Luis Lugo deftly handled what could have been a big inning by striking out the final two batters mixing his curve and fastball and stranding runners on second and third.

The Hillcats then jumped out to a 3-1 lead with a two-run home run from catcher Francisco Mejia in the third, followed by a double off the bat of Yu-Cheng Chang, who was then driven home by a single from Marabell in the fourth inning.

Potomac evened the score at 3-3 in the sixth, but the Hillcats manufactured a run in the bottom of the inning using a double by Chang, a single by Marabell and a sacrifice fly from Claudio Bautista to retake the lead.

Again Potomac answered back in the eighth inning with a walk to Dale Carey followed by a sharply hit double down into the left field corner off the bat of Victor Robles that scored Carey.

The score would remain tied going into the 12th inning. Both Lynchburg and Potomac had a least one runner on base in each of the extra frames. The Nats would break through in the top of the 12th, using a double, a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly to bring home a run.

That the Hillcats would come back was never in doubt.

When asked about the team’s confidence, right fielder Taylor Murphy said, “It’s everything. We’re an aggressive team. The entire game there was no sense of panic. Guys kept having great at-bats.”

To open the 12th inning, Potomac’s closer Brinley came to the mound. This was the same pitcher Marabell had bested for his walk-off home run almost ten days before. For the season Brinley sported a 1.37 ERA and had walked only seven batters in over 39 innings pitched.

Hillcats designated hitter Dorssys Paulino promptly led off the inning by rapping a single to left field. He advanced to second on a sacrifice by Chang and Marabell then flew out to left field. This brought Yonathan Mendoza to the plate. He had come into the game in the eighth inning as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement for Bautista, who had previously made several miscues on ground balls.

Mendoza had also been wielding a hot bat of late. The pitch from Brinley caught him on the hands and he lofted a looping ball into short right field. Potomac’s second baseman, center fielder and right fielder converged on the ball and it looked like Potomac would clinch a trip to the Mills Cup Finals. Instead, the ball found no-mans land and landed between all three, and then was mishandled leading to a double for Mendoza and giving pinch-runner Willi Castro the opportunity to score and knot the game at fives.

You could feel the momentum turn, but Potomac would not go out so easily. Even though Brinley uncharacteristically walked two batters that inning, the Hillcats could not bring across a second run and play continued into the 13th inning.

With two out and Potomac shortstop Osvaldo Abreu on first following a single, Nats right fielder and minor league veteran Drew Vettleson crushed a line drive over the head of right fielder Murphy.

“Marabell and I were talking,” said Murphy about his play on the ball. “He was communicating with me, backing me up. I got a nice hop off the wall and Krieger was in the perfect spot for the relay to home. He really made the hard play.”

Second baseman Tyler Krieger made the pinpoint relay to home and catcher Mejia, who tagged Abreu on contact at home plate, getting bowled over in the process but getting the out to end the inning.

“You definitely feel the momentum swing,” said Murphy about the defensive play he initiated, “Make a great play like that and everyone gets fired up. It’s especially crucial in extra-innings where runs are so precious.”

The Hillcats finally came out with a victory in the 14th inning. Mendoza would lead off with a single and advance to second on a sacrifice by Murphy. With two outs the Nats walked Mejia and Anthony Santander, bringing Carolina League MVP Bobby Bradley to the plate with the bases loaded.

Normally you would shake your head at such a move, as images of the game winning grand slam dance through your head. But the move made sense. Bradley was 1-for-7 on the night with four strikeouts, and he had been scuffling at the plate since his home run binge in late August that tied the Hillcats season record of 29 held by Aramis Ramirez. Clearly the Nationals were challenging Bradley, betting he would swing at off-speed offerings low in the strike zone.

Bradley had been getting extra work with hitting coach Larry Day.

“My focus has always been to hit the ball the other way,” said Bradley. “I’ve been doing a lot of work on it and I’m starting to see the results now.”

Potomac paid the price for challenging Bradley. With his quick, compact swing he took a flat offering and looped a solid single into right-center field, scoring Mendoza and giving the Hillcats a victory.

The Hillcats would go on to win the third game behind strong pitching from Sean Brady and the bullpen as they claimed the Northern Division Championship and the right to play Southern Division winner Myrtle Beach in the Mills Cup Finals.

Bradley quite aptly sums up the team approach that has made the Hillcats so successful this year.

“We all see ourselves as leaders,” he shared. “We all get on each other and like to have fun. I don’t focus on the stats, I just get out there and take it one at bat at a time.”

The Lynchburg Hillcats have continued that approach in taking on Myrtle Beach. Again starting on the road they won the first game, but lost Game 2 and returned home for the final three games of the Championship series and a chance to win their fifth league title since the name Hillcats was installed in 1994.

After falling 7-0 in Game 3 on Tuesday night, the season is on the line with Wednesday’s first pitch at 6:30 PM.

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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