Hillcats Back in ‘Hill City’
Opening Day at Lynchburg City Stadium was this past Friday. It was an electric atmosphere as the fans welcomed back baseball to the “Hill City” for the summer. A capacity crowd of 4,660 fans filed through the gates. The first thousand were rewarded with a commemorative 2012 Opening Day Pennant, but all were treated to a highlight-filled 9-3 Opening Day Hillcats win.
The ‘Cats led the visiting Potomac Nationals from the start with a run in the bottom of the first, bringing the Hillcats faithful some early excitement. Two innings later the crowd erupted for catcher Braeden Schlehuber’s towering homer over the left field wall. It was the first of four Hillcats home runs in their opening weekend series.
RHP Gus Schlosser cruised through eight innings in his first professional start, allowing just two runs on six hits, while striking out four, and earning the win.
Meanwhile, the offense continued to pile up insurance runs. Outfielder Robby Hefflinger went deep in the fifth inning driving in two, extending the Hillcats’ lead to 4-1 at that point. Heff and Schle finished the first game 5-for-7 with two home runs, two doubles, five RBI, and four runs scored as a duo.
Day two of the season was more of the same for the Green and Gold. Starter Ronan Pacheco held the Nationals scoreless through four innings but didn’t factor into the decision since he didn’t pitch the fifth. Hefflinger homered again, an opposite field shot to right-center field. The Hillcats were up 4-0 after two frames and went on to win 7-2.
Sunday’s game was a close one at Calvin Falwell Field. The ‘Cats scored in the first inning for the third straight game and took an early 2-0 lead. Second baseman Tommy La Stella hit a mammoth shot that needed no help from the wind gusting out to right field, but it certainly helped make the blast look that much more impressive. Potomac answered quickly in game three. They erased the Hillcats lead for the first time all weekend by scoring two runs in the second inning. The game remained tied until the fifth inning when La Stella drove in yet another run, his league leading seventh of the young season, with a sacrifice fly to center field scoring Hefflinger. The Hillcats hung on to win 3-2 as the bullpen combined for four scoreless frames, following starter J.R. Graham’s five-inning Hillcats debut.
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Hillcats Sweep!: The ‘Cats longest win streak in 2011 was four games. A four game sweep of back-to-back double headers against the Nationals in Potamac last May. The team only won three in a row six times through out the season and never swept a three-game series the entire year. It was the first time the Hillcats had swept Potomac in a three-game series at home since April 14, 1997, when Potomac went by the Cannons moniker.
Last year the Hillcats went on a 10-game losing streak after winning their season opener. It took the team 12 games to capture a second win. This year they’ve won their first three in impressive fashion, leading the league in hitting at .337 and ranking second in ERA at 2.33.
Nationals Top Pick Sidelined: The sixth overall pick of the 2011 draft, Anthony Rendon, went down with an injury Saturday night in Lynchburg. Rendon signed a $7.2 million contract just before the deadline last August and was number two prospect in the Nationals organization behind Bryce Harper this year. He fell to the ground rounding third, trying to score on a single to center field. He did not attempt to get back to third base as he lay on the field writhing in pain. A pair of trainers eventually helped him to the clubhouse. Early reports have said that x-rays were negative and that it is just a bad sprain. No timetable has been set for his return to action.
Rendon’s injury certainly overshadowed the losses in the standings for the Nationals organization and Potomac. Rendon was playing in just his second professional game when he went down. He went 2-for-4 with a double, triple, and a run scored before getting hurt. After Nationals prospects like third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, RHP Stephen Strassburg, and OF Bryce Harper all skipped the Advanced-A Potomac club over the last few years, there was added excitement for Potomac and the Carolina League as a whole to see the talented Rendon this season. After talking to him briefly this weekend (prior to the injury), it’s clear he’s a great guy with a sense of humility about him that can be rare in a young man with so much talent (and now the money to go with it). Hopefully he’ll be back in the game soon.
Hefflinger’s New Look: OF Robby Hefflinger says he lost 20 pounds over the offseason. He looks like a brand new ball player from a year ago. The hard work is already is paying dividends on the field. He’s 4-for-10 with two home runs and a pair of doubles, three RBI, and four runs scored through three games.
La Stella Stellar Start: 2B Tommy La Stella, eighth round 2011 selection, leads the Carolina League through the first three days with seven RBI. The 2011 Big South Player of the Year out of Coastal Carolina University is picking up right where he left off last season. He turned in a .328 batting average, nine home runs, and 40 RBI with Low-A Rome in 63 games in his rookie season.
The Hilcats have hit the ground running this season. At 3-0, they are in first place in the Carolina League Northern Division. Next on the docket is a 460 series against the Salem Red Sox Tuesday-Thursday at Lynchburg City Stadium. Game times are 6:05pm, gates will open at 5pm. Mike Viso and I will have the call for each game on 105.5 KD Country and online at lynchburg-hillcats.com starting with the Hillcats On-Deck Show powered by Honda/Suzuki of Lynchburg at 5:40pm each night.
“Voice of the Hillcats”