The Lynchburg Hillcats were the dominant team in the High-A Carolina League. They won both halves of the Northern Division and finished the season with an 87-52 record. The next closest team was the Buies Creek Astros at 74-65, who failed to qualify for the playoffs in either half of the Southern Division.
One significant contributor to the Hillcats success was the stability of their roster. Of the 12 position players on the Opening Day roster, only one was not with the team when the season ended on September 9 (infielder Yonathan Mendoza, who received a promotion to AA Akron on July 6). Seven of the original 13 pitchers also lasted the full season on Lynchburg’s roster. For a minor league team whose primary goal is player development, that level of stability is unusual.
The performance of a number of players who have spent time on the Hillcats roster creates depth for the Cleveland organization. It also will likely provide opportunity for some of those players in December at the Rule V draft. Too many players have demonstrated their value to a Major League organization, and the 40-man roster will not have enough slots for all of them.
“It is a problem,” said Hillcats manager Tony Mansolino, “but it is a problem they would rather have. You can’t have too many good players.”
This wealth of talent was more evident on the pitching side of the ledger, but a number of the hitters have also taken steps forward. Catchers Sicnarf Loopstok and Martin Cervenka topped their career playing time by significant margins. Loopstok had never had more than 225 at-bats in a season. In 421 at-bats, he punched 17 home runs and 65 RBI and topped almost every personal best in his career, expect stolen bases. He had eleven, the same total as his previous season.
Cervenka anchored the Hillcats lineup. Without fail, you could expect him to be penciled in to the four or five spot on the lineup card each night. He also topped his career best in every offensive category, racking up 24 doubles, 8 home runs, 57 RBI, and finishing with a .278 batting average.
“Getting consistent at the plate has really helped me out this season, just seeing pitching, playing every day, and getting ready every day,” Cervenka shared.
The 25-year-old veteran catcher signed with the Indians in 2009 as a 16-year-old. Having earned his position as the team’s primary backstop, he handled a pitching staff that was often dominant.
“All year long we’ve had really good pitching. Four of our starters got called up to AA, which says how good our pitching is,” said Cervenka. “I think our bullpen has been really good, too. They’re able to command their fastballs down in the zone and they can throw their off-speed stuff for a strike when they need to.”
After losing a heartbreaker to Frederick in the first game of the Northern Division Championship, the team geared up to take two games at home, and clinch the Northern Division title.
“I thought we played pretty good yesterday, a little bit of unluckiness. In a 10-9 ballgame you would think we didn’t pitch well, but I thought we threw the ball better than it showed and if we continue to do what we did yesterday, I think we have a chance, especially playing back home,” said Brock Hartson after the victory.
Hartson was one of the top Hillcats pitchers on the season. He started the year in the bullpen coming off hip surgery and shifted to the rotation with the promotion of Thomas Pannone to AA. Like every other player on the Lynchburg team, Hartson was relaxed and confident about the Hillcats pursuit of a title.
Triston McKenzie took the mound for the first home playoff game. On that Friday evening, no one was more confident or dominant than McKenzie. Battered several times during the season by a strong hitting Frederick club, McKenzie had no doubts about the outcome of this playoff game.
“I’ve seen this team, I’ve pitched against them four times now and it’s knowing they’ve gone against me and they’re going to have a game plan and you are going to have to mix stuff up,” said McKenzie.
He would toss seven scoreless innings in a 3-0 Hillcats victory. Only five Frederick batters would reach base (three by a hit and two by a walk). McKenzie struck out ten in a game where the Keys only threatened to score once, with a walk followed by a hit in the third inning. Lynchburg closer Argenis Angulo would come on to pitch two perfect frames, striking out three more Keys batters to seal the victory and set up game three where the winner would clinch the Northern Division title.
The threat of Hurricane Irma led the Carolina League to cancel the Mills Cup final round and install co-champions, with the Northern and Southern Division winners sharing the accolades. After working so hard all season to win both halves of the Northern Division season, disappointment did not dominate the Hillcats players thinking.
“A little bit, but knowing that we’re going to get rings, this game means everything to us,” McKenzie shared regarding disappointment in being co-champions. “After we won the first half, I think that’s been the goal the whole time, just come out here and win every game that we can. I think that showed in the second half, and the playoffs.”
McKenzie’s confidence and optimism were a common feature of the Lynchburg Hillcats team this season. With solid play, excellent pitching and a well-balanced coaching staff, the team turned in an honest effort every day.
“The reason why we’ve won is we’ve worked hard at it,” said manager Mansolino.
That work ethic and the need to push through the tough parts and work through the whole season was evident in outfielder Andrew Calica. In his first full season of professional baseball, Calica needed to learn how to manage his efforts to get the most from his talent. His attitude exemplified that of the Hillcats players. Even with no championship round, the team was not sulking.
“You don’t think about that much,” Calica said ahead of winning the shared championship. “Regardless of what happens, we had a really good season. We’re going to go out there and play just like the last 140 games and see what happens.”
In the first home playoff game, Calica batted in the three hole in the lineup, going 2-for-3 with a walk, stealing two bases and scoring one of the three Hillcats runs.
“I wasn’t trying to do too much at the plate. Just trying to go the other way and get on base,” said -Calica. “We’ve got good hitters behind me – Gavin Collins, Mitch Longo, guys like that. Let them do the work.”
The late season addition of outfielder Longo sparked the team as they prepared for the playoffs. Promoted from Low-A Lake County on August 31, he played in five regular season games and all three playoff games for the Hillcats. In only one of those contests did he fail to get a base hit, hitting .462 over that eight-game stretch, scoring 12 runs and driving in eight runs – a stellar performance at any level.
Longo also had the unique experience of joining a clubhouse for a team that has grown into its own over the course of the season.
“Everybody’s just really relaxed. We’re real close,” Longo said. “Everybody does their own thing, but at the same time we pick each other up and we all have fun. It’s just a good clubhouse environment.”
This winning attitude has permeated the Hillcats and the Cleveland Indians organization. As the Lynchburg ball club was charging to a Co-Championship of the Carolina League, the Major League -team was in the midst of running off a 22-game winning streak of their own, the best in Indians history and the longest stretch since the 1916 New York Giants.
The effectiveness of the 2017 edition of the Lynchburg Hillcats is summed up by pitcher Sean Brady, who joined the roster on August 17 from Lake County. A starter on the 2016 Hillcats team, Brady spent most of the season in rehab for shoulder issues.
“They’ve got a good clubhouse in there. I’ve just sat back and let these guys do their thing.”
The only real disappointment is that of the fans who did not get to see this Lynchburg Hillcats team go on to two more home games in the Mills Cup Championship round.
There is always next year.
Photo: Lindsay Carico/Lynchburg Hillcats