Fresh green grass. The crack of the bat. A bright warm day requiring sunscreen and a ball cap. These are sure signs of spring training and an impending new season. While Cleveland Indians farm hands were working out in balmy Arizona, fans of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats were enduring a March of temperatures in Central Virginia ranging from a low of 22°F to a high of 78°F. Opening Day usually marks a point when winter fast retreats in the rear view mirror. This year, winter decided to hang around a bit longer.
Under clear, sunny skies, a game time temperature of 59°F paired with a steady breeze out of left field. A mix of old and new Hillcats trotted out onto Calvin Falwell Field for the season opener. Newcomer Sam Hentges would get the nod as the Opening Day starter for the Hillcats.
“I think it’s pretty cool to be the Opening Day starter,” said Hentges about his first opportunity to be the first pitcher to take the mound. “I’m just going to treat it like any other game. Keep my routine and prep like I would for any other game.”
The 6’6″ lefty is coming off his first full season since Tommy John surgery. He would keep most of the Wood Ducks hitters off-balance during his four innings. Down East catcher Alex Kowalczyk, a key player in this contest, would double in the second inning, and Hentges would walk two others batters, but he stranded all three runners he allowed, while striking out four.
A score of 1-0 would be the final tally for the season’s first game. A Lynchburg victory was achieved without a hit. Shortstop Luke Wakamatsu would lead off the fourth inning being hit by the pitch, a solid thunk in the meat of his back. Gavin Collins, a holdover third baseman, would then walk to put runners on first and second.
Facing strapping first baseman and cleanup hitter Emmanuel Tapia, Wood Ducks starter Emerson Martinez reared back for his fastball. Instead of a pitch just off the corner, he bounced it in the dirt. Wood Ducks catcher Kowalczyk quickly dropped his knees, like a hockey goalie, trying to keep the ball in front of him. Instead, the ball bounced and spun off his right leg guard making a line for the foul territory off first base. As Kowalczyk scrambled after the ball, Wakamatsu rounded third and was waved on through, easily reaching home plate to score. Collins would advance to third. He was stranded and neither team would have a serious scoring threat the rest of the night.
After the 80 pitches tossed by Hentges, a combination of Anderson Polanco, Ben Krauth and Henry Martinez would throw 67 more over the final five innings of the contest, finishing the shut out of the Wood Ducks. The bullpen combination of Hillcats veterans would earn the win (Polanco), a hold (Krauth) and a save (Martinez). The four pitchers combined would yield only three hits (two of them to Kowalcyzk) and struck out twelve Down East batters in the shutout.
“We always concentrate on the process even though we all want to win every single game,” said Rougie Odor the Hillcats manager. Returning to the manager’s seat after a decade as a hitting coach in the Indians organization, Odor brings a depth of experience to developing this crop of young talent. “It’s about what we do as coaches to get the players to take consistent at bats, pitch consistently, and play consistent defense. Obviously then the W’s are going to be there.”
Returning to the Hillcats for the first time since 2015 is pitching coach Tony Arnold. He is joined by two former Cleveland farmhands, Justin Toole as hitting coach, and Grant Fink as assistant coach.
Filling out the Hillcats rotation are Zac Plesac, Justin Garza, Tanner Tully, and Jake Paulson. Only Tully is a holdover from the 2017 championship team. Kieran Lovegrove and Billy Strode, along with Polanco, Krauth, and Martinez, return to the Hillcats and the bullpen. New faces to round out the pitching staff of twelve are Micah Miniard and Dalbert Siri, both arriving from Low-A Lake County.
On defense, the Hillcats sport a healthy mix of talent. Jodd Carter returns to patrol the outfield. Collins, the #27 prospect in the Indians system, played 40 games with the Hillcats in 2017, and anchors the hot corner. Late season promotion Mitch Longo also returns as the ‘Cats principal left fielder, and Anthony Miller, a first baseman, is also a holdover.
“I think Longo has a lot of talent,” said Odor. “He reminds me of Pete Rose the way he plays the game. All out, hard, one hundred percent, day in, day out. He has a lot of power, too.”
Power is something the Hillcats will have this year, compared to last. Of the seven new faces bringing their bats to the Hillcats, three have 17 or more homers last season. Up the middle, Logan Ice and Li-Jen Chu are the team’s catchers. Ice is the #19 ranked Cleveland prospect by Baseball America, and Chu popped 17 homers at the Low-A level. At shortstop is Wakamatsu, and Erlin Cerda and Alexis Pantoja fill infield roles at second base, third base or shortstop depending upon the day. Power hitting Tapia holds down first base and the cleanup spot in the lineup. He smacked 29 home runs last season for Low-A Lake County. He will test that power against the tougher Carolina League.
In the outfield #15 prospect Conner Capel will alternate between right and center field, and brings another power bat to the Hillcats lineup. With 22 home runs for the 2017 Lake County Captains, he will bat leadoff this season, giving the team punch at the top of the order.
“Last year I talked to hitting coordinators, and I made a few adjustments to my swing that incorporated my lower half a little bit more,” said Capel about his developing power stroke. “Just sticking with that right now should help me a bunch, using my hips more and getting a heavy swing.”
The 2017 season ended abruptly thanks to Hurricane Irma. The Hillcats were league Co-Champions with opening day opponents, the Down East Wood Ducks. With snow forecast for several days over the opening home stand, winning the first game of the season provides an auspicious start to the Hillcats title defense.
Manager Odor anticipates a boost from the holdover players of the championship team. “Anytime you are on a team that won the championship you are going to get that experience. It’s always great to be part of something like what happened last year.”
With a win on Opening Day, the Hillcats are going the right direction.