The Carolina League best-of-three Division Series begins tonight, as first half Northern Division champ Wilmington travels to second half champ Lynchburg (and Myrtle Beach travels to Winston-Salem).
While the Blue Rocks won the first half, the second half was somewhat a disaster. They endured a franchise-worst 14 game losing streak, lost two starters to injury (one has come back), three starters to Double-A, and a host of other roster moves. However, the playoffs allow the Blue Rocks to hopefully end the season on a high note and with the franchise’s first Mills Cup Championship since 1999.
The two teams haven’t faced each other since a three-game series in Lynchburg August 7-9. The Hillcats won the season series 13-7.
Getting the start in Game 1 for the Blue Rocks is their Pitcher of the Year, Alec Mills. Mills has faced the Hillcats three times (1-2), but not since July 10th and the Hillcats lineup is vastly different (gone are Bradley Zimmer, Nellie Rodriguez, and Luigi Rodriguez). Mike Papi was 2-for-6 with a double and Paul Hendrix went 3-for-7 with a double against Mills this season.
Lynchburg will counter with Michael Peoples, their best starter (11-4 with a 3.42 ERA) and their most dominant against the Blue Rocks lineup. They hit just .169 against him in 65 at-bats. Mauricio Ramos has the lone homer against him (2-for-8, two runs scored). Peoples faced the Blue Rocks three times, but did not allow more than two runs in a start (19IP, 11H, 3R, 2ER, 4BB, 9K).
After tonight’s game, the series moves to Wilmington for the final two games. Matt Strahm is the Game 2 starter for the Blue Rocks. He also faced the Hillcats three times, but only once as a starter on July 26th (5.1IP, 2H, R, HBP, 3BB, 5K). Yhoxian Medina is 3-for-4 with a double and an RBI against Strahm.
Lynchburg has Jayson Aquino listed as the Game 2 starter. He has made just six starts with the Hillcats, his first coming against the Blue Rocks on August 7th (4IP, 2H, R, 0BB, 6K). Overall, he has allowed just nine runs and walked just five in 33 innings.
In that game, Blue Rocks shortstop Jack Lopez went 1-for-2 with a run scored. On the season against the Hillcats, Lopez has hit .266 in 64 at-bats with three doubles, a home run, and five RBIs.
This being Lopez’ third season with the Blue Rocks, going out as a championship will be a perfect ending to three trying seasons. “I’m really excited,” Lopez said following the regular season finale on Monday. “I’ve got to tip my cap to the whole team and staff for doing the job this whole year…Three years here, it’ll be fun. Hopefully winning it all.”
If Game 3 is necessary, Zach Lovvorn will make the start for the Blue Rocks. He faced Lynchburg just once, on July 13th (5IP, 8H, 7R, 5ER, HBP, BB, 2K). In that game, LeVon Washington went 3-for-3 with two doubles and three RBIs.
Luis Lugo is listed as Lynchburg’s Game 3 starter. He made four starts against the Blue Rocks this season, going 2-2. Over 19 innings, Lugo allowed 12 runs (eight earned) on 27 hits and five walks while striking out 15. Lopez went 4-for-10 with three runs scored and an RBI. Ramos went 3-for-10. Ryan O’Hearn hit the lone homer off Lugo (1-for-3 with three RBIs) and Elier Hernandez went 2-for-3 with an RBI.
The one constant for the Hillcats has been Clint Frazier, especially of late. He ended the season hitting .351 over his last ten games. However, Frazier only hit .203 against the Blue Rocks in 74 at-bats (with 21 strikeouts). Frazier went 1-for-6 with two RBIs against Mills and 0-for-4 with two walks and two strikeouts against Strahm.
In my five seasons covering the Blue Rocks, they have reached the playoffs just once (in 2012 against the Hillcats). This will be the first year that I have the chance to possibly cover a clinching win.