Blue Rocks, Naturals sweep to Championship Series

Even though the big league KC Royals took a beating tonight, it was a celebratory one for three of their minor league teams.

First, High-A Wilmington won their best-of-three series over Lynchburg, 4-3. The Blue Rocks won their first Northern Division title since 2004 and first as a Royals affiliate since 1999.

Fittingly, the last time the Blue Rocks won the Carolina League title was when they shared it with Myrtle Beach in 1999 and the Pelicans will be their opponent. It has been a LONG time.

Blue Rocks shortstop Jack Lopez on Opening Night 2015 (Jen Nevius).

Blue Rocks shortstop Jack Lopez on Opening Night 2015 (Jen Nevius).

The Hillcats jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the second against Blue Rocks starter Matt Strahm (5.1IP, 5H, 2R, BB, 6K). Cleveland Indians prospect Bobby Bradley singled to start the inning and Joe Sever followed with a single. An error in right field allowed Bradley to move to third base. A sac fly put the Hillcats on top 1-0 and Mike Papi followed with an RBI double.

Fast forward to the fifth, when Cam Gallagher led off the inning against Hillcats starter Jayson Aquino with a single. A sac bunt moved him into scoring position. After Dominique Taylor walked, a wild pitch put both in scoring position.

Aquino rebounded to strike out Logan Moon, but up came Carlos Garcia, who lined a single up the middle to tie the game. It almost took Aquino’s head off.

Lynchburg may have left Aquino in too long. He started the 8th inning with the game tied at 2-2, but allowed a one out single to Garcia.

In came Trevor Frank to face Jack Lopez. On the second pitch of the at-bat, Lopez blasted a two-run home run into the left field bullpen. “I can’t even remember it,” Lopez said after the game, covered in alcohol. “I just know I hit it good. I don’t have much pop, but I knew I hit it enough.”

The Blue Rocks quickly shut down the double-barreled action in the bullpen for lefty Estarlin Cordero, and boy did he make things interesting in the ninth.

The first pitch he threw was laced into centerfield for a single. After back-to-back strikeouts, Cordero walked the number nine hitter. Yhoxian Medina followed with an RBI single and put the tying run into scoring position.

Cordero fought back and struck out Paul Hendrix to close out the game and set off the mild celebration.

 

So how long will Lopez be talking about his game winning homer? “I was trying to get over it as soon as I hit it. When I got in [and everyone was celebrating], it was driving me crazy. We still got three outs.”

How nervous was Lopez at shortstop for the final three outs? “I was shivering. Cordero probably told me to shut up a few times. I was screaming all over the place.”

 

About an hour or so after the Blue Rocks clinched, Double-A NW Arkansas swept Arkansas in the best-of-five series. The Naturals won 6-3.

Outfielder Lane Adams during spring training 2015 (Jen Nevius).

Outfielder Lane Adams during spring training 2015 (Jen Nevius).

With the game tied at 3-3 heading into the sixth, Lane Adams stole home on a double steal to give the Naturals the lead. Adams was hit by a pitch with one out, stole second, third, and then home. He also doubled twice and scored three runs.

In that same inning, Bubba Starling (who homered in the fourth) walked, stole second, and then third base.

The Naturals tacked on two more runs and the bullpen made it hold up (Parker Morin tripled in the seventh and scored on a Raul Mondesi single and Mondesi tripled in a run in the ninth).

Brooks Pounders earned the win, as he allowed three runs on four hits and two walks over 5.1 innings. He struck out four. Daniel Stumpf got out of the sixth, before Aroni Nina threw two perfect innings of relief. Malcom Culver earned the save, as the Naturals turned a 3-6-3 double play to end the game.

The Naturals now await the winner of the Midland-Corpus Christi series (Midland is up 2-1 in the series) to decide their opponent for the Texas League Championship.

 

Idaho Falls advanced to the Pioneer League Championship with a 4-3 win over Orem in ten innings.

Josh Banuelos led off the top of the eighth with a solo home run to tie the game at 3-3. In the tenth with one out, Brandon Dulin struck out, but reached base via a wild pitch.

After a pinch runner (Rudy Martin) and a stolen base, the new Orem reliever got a strikeout before Nick Dini singled home the go ahead run.

Jacob Bodner pitched a perfect bottom of the tenth to close out the victory for the Chukars.

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About Jen Nevius

I first became a KC Royals fan way back in 1995 when I attended my first Wilmington Blue Rocks game. I fell in love with minor league baseball then and began following the Royals as former Blue Rocks clawed their way to the big leagues. 3+ years ago I started covering the Royals for Aerys Sports, but since the site has been shut down, I am going out on my own.
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