For the second consecutive season as a Cleveland Indians’ affiliate, the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats reached the Carolina League playoffs. This year they took it one step further, winning the Northern Division playoff against the Potomac Nationals and advancing to the Mills Cup Championship before bowing to the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, who would win their second consecutive Carolina League title.
The Hillcats’ success as a team was achieved through a combination of a strong offense and consistent pitching.
Three players at the heart of their batting order; Anthony Santander, Bobby Bradley and Yu-Cheng Chang, greatly contributed to the team’s success. Bradley and Santander were two of the top three hitters in the league, with Bradley capturing the Carolina League MVP on the strength of his 29 home run and 102 RBI performance.
Bradley worked closely with Hillcats hitting coach Larry Day throughout the season in order to improve his hitting skills and handle the shift when it was used against him.
“I haven’t changed anything mechanically,” said Bradley about how his hitting developed over the course of the season. “Mostly I focused on driving the ball the other way and how not to hit ground balls on a pitch on the outer half [of the plate].”
Batting in the number three spot in the lineup most of the season, Santander finished third in the Carolina League in both home runs (20) and RBI (95) and vaulted himself into contention to be in the top echelon of Cleveland’s prospects for 2017. He was able to achieve this level of performance by putting in a full season, playing in 128 games and tallying 500 at-bats. This is his first season not spending time on the disabled list.
The Hillcats shortstop Chang did spend some time on the DL – 12 days in August out of action. This only mildly curtailed what was his strongest season yet as a professional. The 21-year-old from Taiwan had 13 home runs and 70 RBI and significantly improved his defensive skills with only 17 errors while turning 67 double plays on the season.
“The approach with him is to maintain the very simple, repeatable swing that he’s been blessed with,” said coach Day. “Everyone who has touched that kid from an instructional standpoint has done a great job with him.”
It was the 3-4-5 combination of Santander, Bradley, and Chang that helped the Hillcats reach a championship caliber of play.
Another notable hitter who spent time on the roster was center fielder Greg Allen. He batted in the leadoff spot playing in 92 games before a promotion to AA Akron. He led the Hillcats in stolen bases with 38 and won a Rawlings Minor League Gold Glove Award for his defense. He made only two errors on the season regularly turning difficult catches into routine plays.
What characterized the Hillcats’ season was the strong team approach they had when it came to success between the lines.
“We all just show up and have fun and do what we love to do,” said Bradley. “Nobody adds any pressure to themselves, we all just have fun.”
On the pitching side of the ledger, a number of players stand out for their performance while in a Hillcats uniform. Foremost among these were two players who were not around to enjoy the postseason exploits – Julian Merryweather and Justus Sheffield.
In eleven starts with the Hillcats, Merryweather earned an 8-3 record, notching 58 strikeouts in 61 innings, walking 15 batters, and giving up only seven earned runs on his way to a midseason All-Star berth. At 24 years old, he was soon promoted to AA Akron where he tallied five more victories in support of their championship season.
Sheffield was the other top starter for the Hillcats, but was traded to the Yankees as part of the package that the Indians gave up for reliever Andrew Miller. Sheffield’s 93 strikeouts put him fourth on the Hillcats staff for the season.
The pitchers ahead of him were the ones who had significant roles to play down the stretch. Luis Lugo and Sean Brady, a pair of 22-year-old left-handers, had to step up in the rotation when Merryweather and Sheffield departed.
Brady earned 12 wins, a career high, while notching 118 strikeouts, good for second on the team. Lugo tallied eight victories while pitching 136 innings, a career high for him, and cut down 113 batters by strikeout.
It was Mitch Brown who had the most interesting year of the five members of the Hillcats’ Opening Day staff. Brown led the team in strikeouts with 120, but was shifted from working as a starter to the bullpen midway through the season.
“Obviously it’s a new role for him over the last month and a half,” said Hillcats manager Mark Budzinski. “There is always a learning curve for that. Now he knows how long it takes for him to get ready. He’s got the stuff [to close], it just depends on getting that opportunity more.”
Furthermore, Brown got engaged during the season with plans to be married this October.
In the Mills Cup Championship series against Myrtle Beach, the long season finally caught up with the Hillcats. Over the final 21 games of the season the Hillcats only mustered a 10-11 record, winning only three games in their final three series, all of which were against other playoff bound teams from the league.
They downed rival Potomac 2-1 in the Northern Division Championship, including a 14-inning affair won by the Hillcats that kept their season alive.
They then split the first two games of the Mills Cup series in Myrtle Beach, including winning another extra inning affair, 4-3, in taking the first game of the series. It would be the last win of the season for the Hillcats.
“The key is always pitching and defense,” said Budzinski. “Just get ahead of hitters, get favorable counts, and make the routine play.”
Unfortunately for the Hillcats, it was Myrtle Beach that used pitching and defense to capture the title.
In Game 3, the Pelicans’ Trevor Clifton mowed down a tired looking Hillcats team along with its bullpen contributing relief from Tommy Nance and Scott Effross. The Hillcats’ once potent offense could muster only five hits on the night while striking out eleven times and losing 7-0.
There was more life in the Hillcats bats for Game 4. Midseason addition to the Hillcats, catcher Francisco Mejia, provided most of the offense. In the first inning Mejia doubled over the center fielder’s head, driving in Tyler Krieger to put the Hillcats on the board.
Mejia had already gained national attention by having a 50-game hitting streak, which was the longest modern hitting streak in the minor leagues.
“The only thing that matters is the confidence he brings from those hits,” said coach Day about keeping Mejia grounded during the streak. “Nothing else matters except for what is right in front of him every at bat or every pitch received.”
In the third inning, Krieger would again single to lead off the inning. Mejia then drove a flat offering from the Myrtle Beach pitcher over the right-center field wall for a two-run homer to put the Hillcats back in front 3-2. It would be the end of the Hillcats offense for the day.
Myrtle Beach relievers James Pugliese and Ryan McNeil would keep the Hillcats offense down, while the Pelican bats would score another three runs in the seventh on the way to the championship.
What has emerged from the Hillcats season is a core group of players who provide significant depth to the Cleveland Indians farm system. Individually and as part of the team, they have begun to learn how to be successful. Those lessons will carry forward into future seasons, as they battle to master their talent and advance to the Major Leagues.
“I don’t focus on stats,” said Bradley. “I like to get out there and take it one at-bat at a time.”
Bradley’s approach helped him tie the Hillcats’ season record for home runs. All the players who spent time with this year’s Lynchburg squad had fun and learned that fun and success can go hand-in-hand, as long as you put in the hard work of training and preparation before the umpire shouts “Play Ball!”
Photo: Lathan Goumas/The News & Advance