Before the Lynchburg Hillcats game tonight, I noticed Bryan Morris sitting by himself charting pitches. Morris was joined by Rudy Owens the previous night, a victory by the Hillcats, but Owens was on the mound this night. I asked Morris if he was holding down the fort by himself, and he responded that no one would join him because they were too superstitious.
I don’t think a Jose de los Santos walk off home run is going to provide Morris with any company from his superstitious teammates in the next game.
The Lynchburg Hillcats have been no strangers to the concept of needing a comeback victory. That doesn’t mean anyone expected de los Santos to hit his first home run in four years, giving the Hillcats a walk-off victory, and a 2-0 lead in the best of five series against the Salem Red Sox.
“It’s as unlikely as it could be,” Hillcats manager P.J. Forbes said of the homer by de los Santos. “He’s had great at-bats throughout the playoffs, and the right pitch, and the right swing at the right time. It’s what you dream about as a little kid. I’m just happy for him because he is a great kid and has done everything we’ve asked this year.”
So what did the unlikely hero of the game think of his improbable accomplishment?
“I’m really happy,” de los Santos said of his homer. “I hit two in the Dominican four years ago. This was my first one in the United States.”
De-Lo, as he is nicknamed in Lynchburg, also had a key play in the fifth inning with the Hillcats down 1-0. With two outs, De-Lo hit a short ground ball that was fielded by the pitcher. A wild throw by the pitcher pulled the first baseman off the bag, and De-Lo’s speed allowed him to reach safely, which also allowed Kris Watts to score the tying run. The next batter was Chase d’Arnaud, who ripped a double for two more RBIs, giving the Hillcats a 3-1 lead.
“Every time I hit the ball I run hard,” de los Santos said of the play in the fifth inning. “You don’t know what will happen if you don’t run hard.”
The Hillcats were helped by another solid pitching performance, this time by Rudy Owens, who went 6.1 innings, allowing two runs on four hits, with a walk and seven strikeouts. The big mistake by Owens was a solo homer in the third inning. From there he was dominant, with some outstanding breaking stuff, and his usual good control.
In the seventh inning, Owens walked the leadoff hitter, then struck out Mike Jones, before getting lifted for Noah Krol. Krol, who has been excellent in relief this season, allowed a single to his first batter, putting two on. The next batter, Chih-Hsien Chiang, went deep for a three run homer, putting the Red Sox up 4-3 in the top of the seventh inning. When asked what he said to his team following the homer, Forbes replied:
“I don’t have to say anything. These guys have been in that situation all year where we’ve needed guys to step up and deliver in clutch situations. They haven’t backed down from any challenges all year, and tonight was no exception.”
The Hillcats certainly didn’t back down, starting a rally in the bottom of the eighth inning. d’Arnaud battled back from an 0-2 count, earning a walk as the leadoff batter. Josh Harrison showed bunt several times in the next at-bat, but walked on five pitches. Jordy Mercer came to the plate, after seemingly picking up his pitching wedge, rather than his baseball bat.
Mercer laid down a bunt, popped the ball in to the air just short of the pitcher, and in Tiger Woods fashion, the ball hit the ground with backspin, rolling away from the pitcher, and allowing Mercer to reach first safely, loading the bases with no outs.
Jamie Romak followed that up by drawing a walk, bringing Chase d’Arnaud in for the tying run, with the crowd of 922 people providing a playoff atmosphere that would make you think there were a few thousand fans in the seats. The Hillcats were unable to capitalize on the situation, as Salem went to their bullpen, bringing in Kyle Fernandez, who struck out Kris Watts, then got Tony Sanchez to ground in to a double play to end the inning.
Ronald Uviedo came on to pitch the ninth inning, and looked very sharp. Uviedo, who has had a lot of success in the closer role since the departure of R.J. Rodriguez to the World Cup, mostly relied on his change up, striking out the first batter he saw, followed by two pop outs to d’Arnaud to get through the inning with ease.
Then came the unthinkable. With Matt Hague, Alex Presley, and de los Santos due up, most would have thought Hague would have been the most likely to hit the walk off homer, after hitting a key homer in Monday’s game. Hague lined out to short, and Presley grounded out to the pitcher, putting two outs on the board. At that point anyone would have settled for a De-Lo single, which would allow him the chance to steal second with Chase d’Arnaud at the plate. Instead, De-Lo crushed a pitch to left center field, hitting the bottom left part of the scoreboard for the walk off homer.
The Hillcats carry a 2-0 lead to Salem on Thursday, after an off-day Wednesday. Jeff Locke takes the mound for Lynchburg, after throwing 5.2 shutout innings against Wilmington in his last playoff start.
More notes from P.J. Forbes:
On the great pitching in the playoffs: Sets the tone for us every night. Our starters have been phenomenal. Wally gives them the game plan every night, Tony calls the game, and the pitchers execute. Against a hitting team like this, that’s all you can ask for. These guys swing the bats so well. We had so much trouble against them at the end of the season, we couldn’t find a way to get that 27th out.
On the addition of Tony Sanchez: He’s been outstanding. The number of innings he’s caught, he’s pretty worn down, but he continues to go out there, do the work, and not complain. He’s professional. He’s everything you could hope for in a first round draft pick, how he handles himself. He’s been a great addition.
On the playoff defensive alignment of d’Arnaud at second, Mercer at short, and Harrison at third: We had the luxury, since we won the first half, to expose guys to different positions, and that’s what, as an organization we felt, it adds value to them that they can play multiple positions. Not wanting to take Jordy totally out of short, and wanting to expose Chase to second base some, you know, because you don’t know where these guys are going to end up as they advance through our system. In the playoffs, just trying to go with what we feel best, not wanting to change anything up. Not that Jordy’s the better shortstop, but the continuity of just having guys play the same position every night, and not having to come to the yard looking at ‘where am I playing tonight?’. Just gives them some consistency and let them settle in.
On his impression on the Pirates’ organization in his first year in the system: Kyle Stark made it easy for me to come over here, after meeting with him. Just talking about the expectations, building an organization through the draft and trades. Discipline, accountability, attention to detail, those are all things that I feel like are important to me, and I expect out of my players, and to have him as my boss and be on
the same page with him and know that he’s going to have my back on situations that arise throughout the year, whatever it is, made it easy for me. The players are outstanding. They have done their homework in the draft. Obviously you look around the infield, they’re all first year guys. This is their first season here. They found a way to grind through it and stay consistent and come playoff time be ready to go and perform.
On how close de los Santos has gotten to a homer this year: He’s hit two out in batting practice, but he has not hit the wall in a game. It’s not that he hasn’t put good swings on the ball, but out stress to him is line drive/hard ground balls, use your speed.
On heading to Salem for the next three games: What concerns me is the day off. These guys (Salem) were on such a roll at the end of the season. They carried it in to the playoffs, and then they had to sit two days while we had to finish up our series with Wilmington. I kind of compare it on a smaller scale to what Colorado went through. They had that great run, swept through the first series, then had to wait for the World Series. I felt like they kind of lost their mojo, I think they felt like they kind of lost their mojo. These guys are too talented, they swing the bats too well, and they have too many good arms to think that we’ve accomplished anything. 2-0 lead, outstanding, yes, but I’ve watched these guys 20 games this year. No game is over, no lead is safe. My message to (the Hillcats) tonight was that you don’t take anything for granted. You’ve got to come with the same focus, you’ve got to come with the same energy, same emotion, and be playing like it’s 0-0 or even down.