The strength of the 2017 High-A Lynchburg Hillcats is pitching. Right-hander Triston McKenzie, Cleveland’s third ranked prospect according to Baseball America, heads up a staff that leads the competition of the ten-team Carolina League. This overall pitching performance puts the Hillcats only two games behind Central Virginia rival Salem, with four games remaining before the All-Star break, heading into play on Thursday.
“Our starting pitching has been our strength,” said manager Tony Mansolino. “We have some guys here that have had some success in the past and continue to get better.”
Starters Matt Esparza and Thomas Pannone began the season in a Hillcats uniform. Along with reliever Leandro Linares, they are now with AA Akron. None of the three pitchers darkened anyone’s preseason prospect lists, but Pannone in particular has elevated himself into the conversation for being included in updated rankings at midseason and beyond.
For the Hillcats, Pannone made five starts, finishing his 2017 time at High-A with a 2-0 record, a perfect 0.00 ERA, 39 strikeouts, 7 walks, and no home runs allowed. He has continued his torrid season on the mound with an overall stat line of 4-1, 0.99 ERA, 69 strikeouts to 19 walks, all in 63 2/3 innings pitched.
“We told him how to revamp his delivery,” said pitching coach Rigo Beltran about Pannone. The organization had shut him down at the end of 2016, concerned about a loss in pitching velocity. “We sat down, for about two to three weeks, and redid his delivery. He worked hard.”
The results of this reconstruction are now showing in the left-handed Pannone’s on-field performance. He adds another quality arm to the strong Cleveland farm system.
Esparza began the season as the Hillcats’ Opening Day starter. His ERA, after his first two starts, stood at 6.75 and he appeared to be struggling.
“Coming out he had a good spring training, he was shaky pitching up in the zone,” said Beltran. “It carried into the season.”
In his following nine starts, spread across both Lynchburg and Akron, Esparza has significantly improved his standing. With a 5-3 record, he has a 3.10 ERA in 61 innings pitched with 55 strikeouts to only 12 walks. He has won both of his starts in a Rubberducks uniform.
“We made some mechanical adjustments,” said Beltran. “He started to really grasp that and now he is starting to get back to where he was last year when he was really leveraging the ball downhill.”
Beyond McKenzie, who is dominating Carolina League competition with both a 14- and 13-strikeout appearance to bracket his last six starts, the other members of the Hillcats rotation have also been excellent.
McKenzie and starter Shao-Ching Chiang were two of five Hillcats named to the midseason All-Star roster for the Carolina League’s Northern Division. Chiang has quietly pitched well all season for the Hillcats. He tops the circuit with a 7-3 record, and backs that up with a 2.57 ERA over 73 2/3 innings pitched. His stuff is not as dominant as that of McKenzie or Pannone, but he has 48 strikeouts to 11 walks, and pitches with intention every time he takes the mound.
“A couple of years out of Tommy John and you’re starting to see him get back to the status he had before surgery,” said Mansolino. “We saw him last year, struggling, confidence wasn’t there. Since then he’s been really good.”
With Pannone’s promotion, reliever Brock Hartson rejoined the rotation and pitched well without a hiccup. Promoted from Low-A Lake County to round out the rotation are Shane Bieber, a 2016 draftee who only a year ago was playing in the College World Series for the UCSB Gauchos, and Aaron Civale, another 2016 draft pick out of Northeastern.
This strong group of starters has led the Hillcats to a 37-25 first half record. The staff ERA is 3.06, almost half a run better than that of their two nearest competitors. The team WHIP sits at 1.15, so the Hillcats are being stingy in giving up baserunners, a necessary element for successful pitching and winning.
Early in the season, the bullpen was not as effective as the teams’ starters, but Mansolino and his coaching staff has figured out best how to manage the bullpen.
“Bullpens are like puzzles,” he said, “you just have to figure it out. It’s more of us than it is of them.”
Emerging as the bullpen leader is Argenis Angulo. The third member of the Hillcats pitching core to make the midseason All-Stars. He is tied for second in the league with nine saves in 15 games finished. He sports a 1.42 ERA and a WHIP of 1.03 in 25 1/3 innings pitched. After spending the 2016 season ping ponging between four levels of the Cleveland farm system, Angulo has settled into the closer role for the Lynchburg bullpen.
None of this is a slight to the Hillcats hitters, who more often than not have done their job and produced an offense that has supported those 38 victories. This is where the teamwork aspect of the Hillcats really comes into play. Every hitter on the Lynchburg roster has found a way to contribute. Leading the charge are third-year Hillcat Sicnarf Loopstok and teammate Sam Haggerty. They are the final two Hillcats to receive an All-Star nod.
Mansolino talked about what the Hillcats needed to do in order to stay in contention and put pressure on a Salem Red Sox team.
“Play clean games. Defense and execution. Our game Sunday [June 7] in Potomac was our poorest execution game. We had a one-run lead going into the eighth inning, so we should be all right. Sometimes these things happen and it didn’t hold up and that’s okay.”
Since that loss, the Hillcats have won 22 of 37 games and boosted themselves from the Northern Division pack into a strong chance at catching the front running Red Sox.
Outfield and base running coach Kyle Hudson summed up the Hillcats and Indians organizational philosophy in his comments about base running, “Our whole coaching staff does a good job of formulating that information prior to the game. We know what to do going into the game. When they [the players] get on base, it’s not the first time they have had to think about it.”
The Hillcats players prepare themselves for every game. In the final week of the first half, they will do everything in their power to win and with a bit of luck come out ahead of the rival Salem Red Sox as both teams chase the first half pennant.
“This organization is probably the best that I’ve ever been around,” said Hudson.
A first half victory will give the Hillcats their third playoff appearance in the same number of seasons as a Cleveland farm system. There can be no better outcome for the Lynchburg fans who will be rooting them on than to win the first half in the Carolina League’s Northern Division.
Photo: Jay Westcott/The News and Advance