A three-run seventh inning proved to be the difference in the Mills Cup Championship Series on Wednesday as the Myrtle Beach Pelicans came back to defeat the Lynchburg Hillcats by a 5-3 final.
The win gave the Pelicans a 3-1 series win and their second consecutive Carolina League championship as they celebrated on the Hillcats’ home turf, Calvin Falwell Field at City Stadium in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Just two batters into the bottom of the first, the home team held the early lead. It would not last for long as the Hillcats twice on the night surrendered a slight one-run lead.
Against Pelicans starter Preston Morrison in the first, Tyler Krieger singled and scored on a double to center by Francisco Mejia. They would add a single by Yu-Cheng Chang and Anthony Santander was hit by a pitch, but Bobby Bradley went down swinging before a double play grounder from Dorssys Paulino.
Myrtle Beach moved out in front in the third against right-hander Matt Esparza as the lineup flipped over for its second trip through. Charcer Burks walked to start the inning and moved to second on a grounder from Donnie Dewees. The blazing-hot David Bote, who singled in the first, was intentionally walked. Eloy Jimenez singled to center to score Burks and one out later, Jeffrey Baez reached on an error at short by Chang that allowed Bote to score to put the Pelicans up, 2-1.
The same two Hillcats who got the job done in the first did the same in the bottom half of the third against Morrison. Krieger singled to center and trotted the rest of the way home as Mejia homered to right-center to put Lynchburg back on top, 3-2. But just like the first, the heart of the order could not get the rest of the job done as Chang and Santander each reached on singles and advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt from Bradley, but Paulino struck out looking and Connor Marabell grounded to second to end the threat.
Morrison was gone for the Pelicans by the fourth, replaced on the mound by James Pugliese. He retired 13 straight batters to handcuff the Hillcats, including striking out a pair in the fourth, the side in the fifth, and Bradley to lead off the sixth inning with his sixth consecutive strikeout.
Esparza exited in the fifth with two outs, giving the game over to Billy Strode. He retired two of the three batters he faced, turning the ball over to Mitch Brown with the bases empty and one down in the sixth. Brown struck out each batter in the inning on swinging strikes, but was not as lucky in the seventh while trying to maintain the Hillcats’ 3-2 lead. The first three batters reached as Burks walked, Dewees singled, and Bote singled to load the bases. Brown then allowed the tying run to score on a wild pitch before striking out Jimenez swinging for the first out. Matt Whitehouse came on in relief and gave up a single to Bryant Flete to score Dewees with the go-ahead run and Bote scored on a fielder’s choice as third baseman Yonathan Mendoza committed a costly throwing error. Trevor Frank got a big double play ball after coming on from the bullpen, but the damage was already done as Myrtle Beach had a 5-3 lead.
Pugliese added one more strikeout in the bottom of the seventh and retired the first batter he faced in the eighth before a one-out double from Chang ended his night. Tommy Thorpe relieved and struck out Santander and got Bradley to pop up to end the frame.
Frank had an easy go of it in the eighth and ninth, giving up a one-out single to Jimenez with no further damage in the final frame. Ryan McNeil came on to close out the game for the Pelicans, walking Paulino to lead off the inning before his pinch-runner David Armendariz was erased on a force at second off of the bat of Marabell. Mendoza struck out swinging for the second out and Taylor Murphy cut and missed on the final pitch of the 2016 Carolina League season as the Pelicans celebrated their championship.
The top of the Hillcats order did its part as Krieger, Mejia, Chang, and Santander combined to go 8-for-15 (.533) in Game 4 with two doubles, a homer, and three RBI. The final five hitters could not drive in the runners, going 0-for-18 with nine strikeouts. Only Paulino reached safely out of the five with his walk late. Murphy struck out in all four at bats, including the final of the season. Every Hillcats hitter struck out at least one time on the night as the team tallied 14 in total. Lynchburg could not get the big hit when they needed it, going 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position while stranding six.
Esparza was hurt by the error by Chang early, as he allowed two runs (one earned) on four hits with three walks and six strikeouts in four and two-thirds innings of work. Brown took the loss after allowing three runs on two hits with a walk, three strikeouts, and a costly wild pitch.
Like Lynchburg, Myrtle Beach got little production from the lineup after its top four hitters. Burks was 0-for-3, but he walked twice and scored twice. Dewees had three singles, Bote had two and scored twice, and Jimenez had a pair out of the cleanup spot. They combined to go 7-for-17 with three walks, while the remaining five hitters went 1-for-19 with a single, three walks, and two RBI. As a team, they were 3-for-14 with runners in scoring position while stranding ten.
The Pelicans claimed the title on the back of their bullpen after Morrison was charged with three runs on seven hits in three innings of work. Pugliese earned the win while tossing four and one-third innings of one-hit relief while striking out seven. Thorpe worked two-thirds of an inning with a K, while McNeil allowed a walk while striking out two in his inning of work.
Both clubs now look to the future and prepare for their respective offseasons. Some players will continue on with play over the fall and winter, while others will await spring training and their team assignments for 2017.