The 2018 season ended with the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats going down to defeat under the bats, gloves, and arms of division rival Potomac. It was the fourth time in four years as a Cleveland Indians affiliate that the Hillcats went to the playoffs. In that span, the club has achieved only a single League title, in 2017, when they split the Mills Cup Championship with the Down East Wood Ducks due to cancellation of finals because of an impending hurricane.
To open the season the club is marked by a veteran presence, including first-year Hillcats manager Jim Pankovits. Nine of the 13-member pitching staff toed the rubber in a Hillcats uniform last year. Reliever Jared Robinson heads up the list of veteran arms, having spent parts of the three previous seasons in the Carolina League. In addition, newcomer to the Cleveland organization, Yapson Gomez, pitched ten games for Myrtle Beach in the 2018 season, adding yet another league veteran to the pitching staff.
“We have quite a few kids back from last year that have a couple of years under their belt,” said Pankovits before the season’s first game. “I think the strength of the Indians’ organization is causing a little bit of logjam.”
This organizational depth returns eight of twelve players who spent some time in the batter’s box at Calvin Falwell Field last season. Heading up the list of returning players is Cleveland’s number two prospect Nolan Jones. The prep product from Bensalem Pennsylvania saw action in 30 games for Lynchburg, and was instrumental in the team’s drive to the second half Northern Division title and a playoff spot.
“We saw how fun it was,” said Jones about the second half title run and the playoffs. “It’s fun to win, it’s fun to have the fans into the game, that makes it fun for us too. I think knowing what that energy feels like, that is what we want too.”
Other key hitters returning to Lynchburg include shortstop Luke Wakamatsu, whose 2018 season was cut short by injury, sparkplug second baseman Dillon Persinger, and catcher Gavin Collins, who will share duties behind the plate with newcomer Mike Rivera. In the outfield, the familiar faces of Trenton Brooks, Austen Wade, and Jodd Carter will see regular time, along with newcomers Steven Kwan and Oscar Gonzalez. Gonzalez is the number 22 ranked prospect in the organization, and looks to build on a season where he batted .292, with a .310 on-base percentage, and a .745 OPS, suiting up for the Low-A Lake County Captains. At 21 years old he is the second youngest player on the team, behind only Jones.
On the mound, second-year Hillcats starter Justin Garza got the Opening Day nod. The rotation will also include Jean Carlos Mejia, Cleveland’s number 17 ranked prospect, southpaw Adam Scott, and Nick Gallagher. Of these four, only Gallagher did not make an appearance for the Hillcats in 2018.
In the bullpen, returning players Robert Broom, Eli Morgan, Kyle Nelson, Anderson Polanco, Felix Tati, and the aforementioned Robinson, will be joined by newcomers Juan Hillman, Jonathan Teaney, and Gomez. Opening night was Thursday, April 4th, on the road against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. Garza got his first career Opening Day start.
“Last year I didn’t get to travel with the team (for Opening Day),” said Garza. “Me and a couple other guys stayed back to throw. Being a part of all this is cool, and pitching on Opening Day is too.”
For the season’s first game Garza and his teammates backed up their experience with performance, drubbing host Myrtle Beach to the tune of a 14–5 victory. The offense pounded out 17 hits, five for extra bases, including home runs by Wakamatsu and Brooks. Garza notched the win with a scoreless five-inning, four-strikeout performance. The only negative was that four of Myrtle Beach’s five runs were unearned due to Hillcats miscues in the middle infield.
In the season’s second game, Gallagher (making his High-A Carolina League debut) followed starter Scott, and the Hillcats again brought out the offense to earn a 6–3 comeback victory over Myrtle Beach. They stroked 14 base knocks on the night, highlighted by a two-run homer from Carter to reclaim the lead in the seventh inning. Out of the bullpen, Gallagher and Nelson kept the Pelicans scoreless to give the Hillcats a 2-0 start to the season, the first time the club has opened with two wins since 2012 when they were affiliated with Atlanta.
Even with all the experienced players on the team, the top offensive performer was one of the newcomers, the outfielder Kwan, who lead off both games and went 7-for-11 at the dish, scoring six of Lynchburg’s runs in these first two contests.
The breadth and depth of the Hillcats roster demonstrated its ability to be successful, much like manager Pankovits expected.
“The Carolina League has a history of being a very competitive league,” said Pankovits in discussing his roster before the seasons start. “All of the organizations that have affiliates here send their best products, their best players, to their High-A team at some point in their careers.”
This is something Pankvoits knows from long experience. Born in Pennington Gap, Virginia, he grew up in Richmond, attending and graduating from Douglas Freeman High School, before moving to the University of South Carolina. His professional playing career began in 1976 in the Appalachian League, ending in 1991 with all or parts of five season spent with the Houston Astros. He then moved right into the managing ranks, taking over the helm of the Red Sox’s AA affiliate in New Britain, Connecticut. From 2006 to 2008, he managed the Salem Avalanche, then in the Astros system, and was the Carolina League’s manager of the year for 2006. Billy Wagner, Dallas Keuchel, J.D. Martinez, Lance Berkman, and former Hillcats hitting coach Chris Truby, all played for Pankovits during their time in the minor leagues.
He is joined on the coaching staff by veteran hitting instructor Johnny Narron, pitching coach Joe Torres, and bench coach Mike Mergenthaler.
It will be an exciting year for Pankovits as skipper, in part because he has a strong team to work with, but also because he returns home to Virginia.
“I’m excited to be here, probably more so than anyone. Growing up in Richmond, having managed in Salem, and working with Houston there, coaching and playing in the state for numerous years. I’m fixin’ to take advantage of the opportunity,” he said with obvious love for his home state.
With the Hillcats off to a very strong start in their first two games, the team aims to give it all their effort in capturing the Northern Division first half championship. The players and the coaching staff are well prepared, physically and mentally, and now it is time to continue to demonstrate their skills between the white lines and give Cleveland management the difficult task of finding places for them to play at higher levels.
“I think we are looking forward to getting back out there and competing,” said outfielder Brooks. “Taking it one game at a time.”
So far, the team handled their first two games well, with two victories before trading off shutouts with the Pelicans in the latter two games of the series over the weekend. It looks to be a fun and exciting summer watching this season’s edition of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats.