The first half of the Lynchburg Hillcats’ 2019 season came to a conclusion on Sunday afternoon, June 16. The Hillcats were facing their Northern Division rivals, Wilmington, for the seventh consecutive day. They had been eliminated from first half contention the previous weekend in Potomac and were now facing the victors of the Northern Division.
The late afternoon contest would be the second of the four-game homestand to go into extra-innings. Never leading Wilmington, the Hillcats would post three runs in the ninth to tie the game at five, and push it to a tenth inning. Unlike Friday evening, where Lynchburg would win with a run scoring walk-off single from Steven Kwan, Wilmington would send the Hillcats to their third straight defeat thanks to a run-scoring balk called on reliever Yapson Gomez that was hotly contested by manager Jim Pankovits.
Even though the Hillcats finished in second place in the Northern Division, their 32–35 record was unremarkable. Despite their pedestrian record, a number of Hillcats players turned in a successful first half to the season.
“We’ve had a lot of adversity,” said Pankovits. “A lot of it because the whole organization has had to deal with a lot of injuries, that’s including the Big Leagues on down.”
From the opening of the season on April 4 through the All-Star break, the Hillcats experienced 56 separate player transactions. Since the beginning of June, the frequency of these has increased, with 26 moves occurring in the first two weeks of the month.
Key players such as Jean Carlos Mejia, Austen Wade, Dillon Persinger, Gavin Collins, Mike Rivera, and Adam Scott have spent time on the disabled list. On top of that, five players from the Opening Day roster have moved up to AA Akron, as well as late April addition Anthony Gose.
Gose, the former Major League outfielder who spent parts of five seasons in the Big Leagues with Toronto and Detroit, joined the club from Extended Spring Training. He is working on reinventing his career as a left-handed relief pitcher.
The former second round pick of the Phillies began his transition to pitching in 2017, getting eleven outings with High-A Lakeland in the Florida State League. He continued on the path last season in the Rangers organization, reaching AA Frisco, before signing with Cleveland for this season.
In 15 games split between High-A Lynchburg and AA Akron, Gose has posted 19 strikeouts in 16.2 innings with three saves and a 1.62 ERA. He regularly pumps in a fastball at 97 or 98 miles per hour. The only downside to his performance has been his control, walking 12 over this same stretch. If he can harness his control, as a lefty, he has a good chance to re-emerge as a power bullpen arm in the Majors, but that is not his only value.
“What everybody didn’t see was his leadership in the clubhouse,” said Hillcats manager Pankovits. “He’s helped so many kids here with how he goes about his business, the conversations he’s had with them in the locker room, keeping them in line, we let him know that we noticed.”
Joining him on the trip to Akron was another reliever, Jared Robinson. The 2019 season marked the fourth year Robinson appeared in a Hillcats jersey. He made the switch to relief in 2018 and is pitching effectively this year, with 47 strikeouts to only 10 walks. To start his promotion, he made a weekend trip south to Durham where he pitched four scoreless innings for a depleted AAA Columbus club. Returning to Lynchburg the following Monday, he packed his personal effects and baseball gear and began the drive from Lynchburg to Akron.
Early in May, Kyle Nelson and Tyler Friis, two players who had been with Lynchburg in 2018, were promoted to Akron. Eli Morgan soon followed and more recently Robert Broom earned his ticket to AA. More promotions are soon to come following the three days where the Carolina League takes a break for its annual All-Star contest, this year in Frederick, Maryland, on June 18.
Four Hillcats will represent the team as members of the Northern Division squad – Nolan Jones at third base, Oscar Gonzalez in the outfield, and starting pitchers Juan Hillman and Scott. The reliever Broom will also be honored, but will not be in attendance because of his promotion.
Broom, a submariner who learned to pitch that way from his father, earned his promotion because of his consistent and dependable work out of the Hillcats bullpen. In 29 innings, Broom posted 39 strikeouts and 10 walks and keeping opposing hitters to a .147 batting average. Even more impressive, the 2018 draft pick has never allowed a home run in his professional career.
Of the five Hillcats named to the All-Star roster, the most impressive and the one with the highest ceiling is Jones.
“I still think he’s a very young player, age wise and experience wise,” said Pankovits. “He’s just an outstanding young prospect.”
The 21-year-old third baseman, whose birthday was on May 7, continues to gain confidence and experience with every game he plays.
Jones completed the season’s first half with a triple-slash line of .283/.431/.404 batting in the three hole in the lineup while appearing in 63 of the Hillcats’ 67 games.
“He knows how his swing works,” said Hillcats veteran hitting coach Johnny Narron. “We are just trying to polish him to a point where when he gets to the Big Leagues, he is ready to play.”
If Jones keeps up this pace in his development, that first game in the Majors might not be too far off.
Perhaps the most interesting player in Lynchburg’s first half is one who never even appeared in a game for the club, pitcher Evan Mitchell. The former Mississippi State Bulldog and a 13th round draft pick of the Cincinnati Reds has pitched a game for every full season club in Cleveland’s farm system except for the Hillcats.
Mitchell has had two appearances at Lake County, Akron, and Columbus. On May 27, he was assigned to the Lynchburg roster, but never got in a game. He joined Robinson on the trip to Durham, where he pitched 2.2 innings against the Bulls before being reassigned back to Lynchburg on June 2. Four days later he would get promoted to Akron, never having appeared in a game with Lynchburg, and barely spending enough time with the club to get to know his teammates.
As the Hillcats prepare for some well-earned downtime, they will look forward to the thought that their chief opponents, Wilmington, will likely lose a number of key players to AA. With expected reinforcements coming from Lake County, the Hillcats will look to do what they have done the last four seasons – secure a playoff spot for the Mills Cup Championship.
Pankovits puts the team goals into focus.
“You know we are not just developing the players, we are trying to develop a winning attitude in the players. And anytime you are playing a meaningful game, that’s going to aid that development. Certainly, we are going to try to win every game that we play.”
Photo: Lindsay Carico/Lynchburg Hillcats (MiLB.com)