Hillcats win Carolina League Championship
It’s a chilly night in October. The year is 2012. Pittsburgh fans are going crazy…for baseball?
The Pirates are taking on the Red Sox in the World Series. The Red Sox are leading 5-3 in the 8th inning of a key seventh game. Andrew McCutchen, Lastings Milledge, and Pedro Alvarez are on the bases with two outs. Jonathan Papelbon comes in to the game to close it out for the Red Sox. Stepping up to the plate? Jordy Mercer.
A line drive to the gap, scoring McCutchen and Milledge to tie the game. You can hear the roar of the crowd all the way across the parking lot in Heinz Field. Chase d’Arnaud steps to the plate. The rookie middle infielder for the Pirates has been coming up with key hits all series, and now has runners at second and third.
Now you can hear the roar of the crowd across the river in Consol Energy Arena. The Pirates, holding a 7-5 lead, need just three outs from closer Ronald Uviedo to win the World Series.
Alright, so maybe that scenario is way too much to take from a championship in high A. However, while the Pirates have clinched their record setting 17th losing season in a row, and while every national media outlet is taking pot shots at the Pirates’ woes, it’s nice as a Pirates fan to have a little something to hold on to. Even if it’s a small glimmer of hope provided by an A ball team sweeping the A ball team of the Boston Red Sox for a championship.
I’m not going to say that this victory by the Lynchburg Hillcats guarantees a championship in the near future for the Pirates. We can look at the Dave Littlefield years to see that minor league success doesn’t guarantee major league success. Then again, this is not your Dave Littlefield championship team.
The starting catcher has been a pro ball player for less than three months. The entire starting infield is currently in their first full year in pro ball. Every starter in the rotation is a legit prospect. The back end of the bullpen has the stuff to potentially be the back end of the bullpen for a major league team one day. This victory by the Lynchburg Hillcats is special, because it’s not a team full of veterans winning, but it’s a team full of actual prospects, having actual success in an actual meaningful game.
Josh Harrison led things off with a walk in the first inning, then scored from first on a double to the gap by Jordy Mercer. The Hillcats ran in to some problems as Jeff Locke allowed three runs in the bottom of the first. I pointed out in a Twitter update that Locke had a 7.23 ERA with Lynchburg when I’m in attendance, and a 2.88 ERA with the Hillcats when I’m not in attendance. You could make a strong case that it wasn’t Locke’s fault tonight, but it was a horrible jinx from a guy sitting in the stands holding a camera.
The Hillcats finished the first inning down 3-1. For a team that has been making comebacks all year, including the post season, that’s not a problem. How they immediately bounced back in the second is where the unexpected came in.
Tony Sanchez led things off with a single. Matt Hague walked, putting two on, and setting up an Alex Presley sacrifice bunt to move both runners in to scoring position. That’s when Lady Luck showed up, dressed in a Hillcats jersey, complete with a foam claw on her right hand.
Jose de los Santos struck out swinging at a pitch in the dirt. Salem’s catcher, Tim Federowicz, stood up to find the ball, and in the process, kicked it behind him. In the process of turning around for the ball, he once again kicked the ball away, allowing de los Santos to reach first safely, loading the bases with one out.
That’s when Chase d’Arnaud came up with one of his clutch hits that seemed to be automatic this series. d’Arnaud looped a double down the left field line, scoring two runs, and putting two more in scoring position, still with one out.
Next was Josh Harrison. Harrison hit a soft looping line drive right back to Salem pitcher Kyle Weiland. Weiland gloved for the ball and turned quickly to third to try and catch de los Santos. The only problem? Weiland missed the ball, allowing Harrison to reach safely, and allowing de los Santos to score.
A wild pitch to Jordy Mercer moved Harrison and d’Arnaud to second and third. Then, Mercer hit a grounder to the right side. Salem first baseman Anthony Rizzo ranged to his right to make the play, but booted the ball. Mercer safe, d’Arnaud scores. The scoring was capped off with a Jamie Romak double to the right-center field gap, bringing in Harrison and Mercer.
“That’s another trait of our team,” Hillcats manager P.J. Forbes said. “When other teams have made mistakes, given us a crack, we’ve kicked the door open and gone on through, and that’s how it was tonight. It’s just kind of contagious. After the error when Jordy was hitting, Romak delivered. On top of (Harrison), and Jordy, and Chase’s, again I look at, that’s a lot of what went on in the first half. We got a chance and we took advantage of it.”
“It was a big inning for us,” Jordy Mercer said of the inning. “They responded with three runs and we knew we had to come back and put a little pressure on them, and we did and we got a big inning out of it.”
Jeff Locke struggled some more in the bottom of the second inning, and exited after 1.2 innings pitched, allowing four runs, six hits, and three walks. That’s when Mike Colla came in to shut the door on Salem. Colla, who had an 0.28 ERA in the first half, but struggled with a 6.87 ERA in the second half, came on to pitch 3.1 shutout innings, allowing only one walk and no hits.
“His M.O. has been throwing strikes,” Forbes said of Colla. “When he throws strikes he generally gets outs, because he can locate. He located tonight. You look back in the first half, guys in the bullpen stepped up when we needed them to. Another case tonight. Just kind of a culmination watching this game tonight, a microcosm of our season. When we needed guys to do it, they did it.”
With the score sitting at 7-4 going in to the fourth inning, an extra run by the Hillcats wasn’t viewed as essential, but merely insurance. Josh Harrison stepped to the plate to lead off the inning, and laid down a bunt to the third base side for a hit. Bryan Morris, sitting next to me charting pitches, commented to me that the single was the fault of the Salem pitcher, who threw mid to high 80s and fell to the first base side after every throw, allowing for a slow bunt to a wide open left side of the infield, which is something the speedy Harrison took immediate advantage of.
That was followed by another Jordy Mercer double, then a single by Jamie Romak to bring in what would eventually be the winning run. On the night Mercer and Romak combined for seven hits and five RBIs from the middle of the order, fueling the offense.
“I just wasn’t trying to do too much,” Mercer said of his 4 for 5 night. “I think that just settle in, and just do the right things, and everything worked out for me.”
Matt McSwain replaced Mike Colla in the sixth, and immediately ran in to trouble, allowing a single, followed by a two run homer, cutting the lead to two runs. McSwain escaped the rest of the inning unharmed, leaving the Hillcats up 8-6.
Ramon Aguero, who was brought down from Altoona before the series, came on for the seventh inning and looked sharp. Aguero threw 93-97 MPH fastballs, mixing in some low 80s sliders for some easy outs in the seventh and eighth. That was enough for Forbe
s to give Aguero a shot to close it out in the ninth.
“He was on a roll,” Forbes said. “Wally (Whitehurst) talked to him, he was feeling good. You try and go with the hot hand. When (Ronald Uviedo) came in he just took the ball from me, like it was over. That’s a good feeling for a manager, there was no fear in his eyes. It was like ‘hey, I’m going to get this done’. He didn’t have to say a word, I just got that feeling from him.”
Aguero and Uviedo, who have been shutdown relievers for the Hillcats in the playoffs, came through in the final three innings for the win, with Uviedo coming on to get Aguero out of a two on, one out jam with a one run lead.
“You can shorten a game,” Forbes said of Aguero and Uviedo. “If you can get to those guys, and shorten a game, that’s a great feeling for a manager. We just wanted to get it to them, and figured if we got the ball in their hands we had a pretty good chance to hold them.”
The Hillcats did just that, getting a two run lead to Aguero in the seventh, and watching Aguero and Uviedo pitch the final three innings to close out the championship.
After the game, Chase d’Arnaud was named the MVP of the series.
“I wasn’t expecting that at all,” Chase said of his MVP award. “It’s an honor, and if it were up to me, everyone would be getting a trophy tonight.”
d’Arnaud was a key part of this series, finishing with seven RBIs, and it seemed as if every one of them came at a key moment.
“I’ve been in a lot of those situations this week,” said d’Arnaud in reference to the key hits. “Everyone really had been coming through, but it just seemed like I was the one up when we had zero runs, just getting it started, and I’m just thankful that I had the opportunity to do that tonight, and just grateful that I came through.”
More comments on the championship:
Chase on the championship looking good for the future of the Pirates: “Definitely, especially considering the fact that we just revamped everything in the Pirates. It’s definitely a step in the right direction for us as an organization.”
Mercer on winning in his first year in the Pirates organization: “It’s great. I’m speechless right now because it’s so exciting. We just battled all day, we grind it out. We had troubles in the second half. The first half was great, and we struggled in the second half, then we picked it up in the playoffs, and it was amazing.”
Forbes on his hitting and pitching coaches: “Dave (Howard) sets out a great game plan every night for our hitters, Wally (Whitehurst) sets out a great game plan for our pitchers. This doesn’t happen without those two guys. People underestimate the importance of the hitting and pitching coach, but for me they’re invaluable. The knowledge that they have, and being through stuff like this before. It was fun to be a part of, and they made it just so enjoyable for me.”
Forbes on Chase d’Arnaud’s series: “He was phenomenal. Big hits. Huge hits. What a great problem the Pirates have, having him and Mercer. Both of them athletic competitors. Both of them stepped up, Jordy had four hits tonight. Stepped up in big times. I look at it and I’m so happy for the organization more than anything, because we’ve talked about building a winning franchise, and it starts from the bottom. Miles Durham and Pedro Alvarez both had huge hands in this, getting us through the first half. What a great start for what we’re trying to do, I believe.
Mercer on the talent he and d’Arnaud provide in the middle infield: It’s awesome. Anytime you’re compared to other people who have a chance to make it in the big leagues it’s awesome. Anytime you bring competition in, it just makes both of us better. We’re good friends, and we love to compete, and we’ll continue to do it.
Chase on another championship next year: “Oh, of course. Always.”
Mercer on repeating next year: “I hope dude, it would be awesome. We’re just going to enjoy this one and get ready for next year.”
Some pictures to wrap it up:
The team posing for the cameras…
Grabbed a banner from the stands, provided by some faithful Lynchburg fans…
A little kid was walking around, they grabbed him, and put him on Tony Sanchez’s shoulders…
Chase d’Arnaud with his MVP award…
I’ll have a video recap on the site tomorrow, including the events of the second inning, and the post game celebration.