Through eight innings, the Lynchburg Hillcats had seven chances to move a runner from second to third or send the player standing 90 feet away home for a run. Seven times they came up short.
The ’Cats finally broke through for a hit on the eighth try Monday, with a runner at second moving to third on a single in the ninth, but it was too little, too late. Hounded by the same troubles they’d faced all season long, the Hillcats sputtered to a shutout loss and a disappointing end to the 2019 campaign.
For the first time in eight years, Hillcats players and coaches dispersed without participating in the Carolina League playoffs, ending the season at 62-73 and in fourth place in both the overall and second-half Northern Division standings.
“We had a lot of adversity, a lot of close games. It’s said you learn a lot more when you lose than when you win, and this certainly was a learning experience for all of us,” said Jim Pankovits, the former major leaguer who managed the Hillcats this season.
Lynchburg’s seven-season streak of making the playoffs had constituted the longest in the league. The ’Cats punched their tickets via a second-half title each of the past four years, after failing to capture a berth with the best record in the first half. This year, though, after finishing 11 games back of Wilmington for second place in the first-half standings, they couldn’t right the ship in the final 70 games.
“Absolutely it’s disappointing,” said Gavin Collins, a catcher for the Hillcats who has played all or part of the 2017, 2018 and 2019 campaigns in Lynchburg. “I hate losing. I like playoffs; I like that atmosphere. I miss playing to really win.”
Pankovits pointed to a number of factors that contributed to the Hillcats’ final positioning. Among them were defensive struggles and base running.
With lots of movement in the infield in the Cleveland Indians organization, he added, Lynchburg had a conglomeration of players filling in in unfamiliar positions. Along with some mental mistakes, the inexperience led to 129 total errors on the season and a .973 fielding percentage, good for eighth out of the 10 teams in the league.
The Hillcats’ biggest weakness, though, came on the offensive end, where they struggled to find or string together timely hits, an issue magnified in the 55 games they played that were decided by two runs or fewer. In those contests, which include 32 games decided by one run, the ’Cats went 26-29.
Lynchburg had the second-highest number of hits (1,087) in the league, but fell to sixth in the standings in RBIs (474).
But there were bright spots who helped the Hillcats navigate that timely hitting void, including Collins, Nolan Jones and Oscar Gonzalez.
Collins, who finished the year with a .262 average and 18 multi-hit games, had the eighth-most RBIs (61) in the league, 20 of which came with two outs. He batted in a runner multiple times in 16 games.
“I think it was more of a mindset. Having and sticking to a plan of approach at the plate, understand which pitchers are on the mound, what their ball does, what their tendencies are, and then attacking those if they line up with my strengths,” Collins said of what helped him find offensive success this year, “and really sticking to that [approach]. Not trying to live on hope when things aren’t going well.”
Jones and Gonzalez, who both were promoted near the midway point of the season, each were tabbed both mid-season and year-end Carolina League all-stars.
Jones, who will join Collins and Lynchburg pitchers Brock Hartson and Kirk McCarty as Indians representatives in the Arizona Fall League in the offseason, was known for his incredible plate discipline, drawing 65 walks in 77 games in Lynchburg while posting a .286 average. And Gonzalez, who played 96 games with the Hillcats, captured the league batting title with a .319 average.
“That guy is a freak of nature with the bat,” Collins said of Gonzalez, who had 22 doubles, three triples and eight homers to go with 61 RBIs, “… doesn’t matter where the pitch is, what the pitch is.”
Younger players in Steven Kwan, who hit .372 in August and finished seventh in the Carolina League with a .280 average, and Tyler Freeman also impressed. Freeman, the Indians’ No. 3 prospect who was called up to Lynchburg at the all-star break, had 24 multi-hit games and hit .319.
“My first day out, I was really nervous,” Freeman said of his Class A-Advanced debut in Lynchburg. “[But I] got really comfortable with the guys and started playing loose and had a lot of fun.”
On the mound, the Hillcats as a team were fourth in the league with a 3.78 ERA.
To end the season, Lynchburg got brilliant performances from a number of starting pitchers, posting three two-hit games in its last week of play.
Hartson, who just this season returned to the game after temporarily retiring, fired a one-hitter over seven innings in one of those contests. Reliever Aaron Pinto (1.90 ERA), who also earned praise from Pankovits, followed and delivered in another tight situation.
Jonathan Teaney (2.77 ERA) and Yapson Gomez (2.27 ERA) also proved reliable arms out of the bullpen. And Justin Garza, the Hillcats’ Opening Day starter, posted a 1.34 ERA in his nine appearances out of the pen following 20 starts.
“He’s shown incredible resilience and poise through the whole year,” Collins, the catcher, said of Garza.
Freeman, who called baseball “a big game of failure,” said he saw improvement in both himself and his Lynchburg teammates despite not making the playoffs, but hopes next year brings a more positive conclusion.
“We’ll give it our best again next year,” he said. “… Hopefully next year we can get back on top.”
Emily Brown covers the Hillcats, ODAC and high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5529.