Posted on 22 September 2009.
UNITED STATES – The 2009 Lynchburg Hillcats enjoyed a banner season highlighted by a Carolina League championship, record-setting attendance and the arrival of a plethora of prospects, including Pedro Alvarez, Chase d’Arnaud, Miles Durham, Rudy Owens and Tony Sanchez.
Lynchburg opened the season with a bang as Pedro Alvarez, the top prospect in Pittsburgh’s farm system and the second overall pick in the 2008 draft, went 3-for-4 with a home run and a double in the Hillcats 6-5 comeback win over Potomac. The opening night victory set the tone for a successful first half as Alvarez, Miles Durham, Michael Dubee and Dustin Molleken led Lynchburg to a 45-24 record, which was easily the best first half mark in the Carolina League. The Comeback Cats tallied 23 come from behind victories in the first half. Additionally, Lynchburg compiled a 23-9 record at City Stadium and went 22-15 in road games en route to capturing the Carolina League’s Northern Division title in the first half.
Alvarez smacked a team-high 14 home runs and amassed 55 RBIs, which led the league at the All-Star break, and Durham batted .296 with seven home runs, 39 RBI, 19 doubles and four triples. Alvarez and Durham were promoted to Double-A Altoona at the All-Star break along with Dubee, who went 2-0 with six saves and a 1.05 ERA in 23 appearances with Lynchburg, and Molleken who was 3-1 with one save and a 3.48 ERA in 18 appearances. Ray Chang posted a .303 batting average with nine doubles and 28 RBI in 36 games with the Hillcats before his promotion to Altoona on July 4. Chang recorded a team-high 15-game hitting streak with Lynchburg.
Roster turnover became a constant for Lynchburg in the second half of the 2009 campaign. A total of 15 players joined the Hillcats in the second half, including several significant contributors to the team’s Mills Cup Championship. After earning a spot on the South Atlantic League mid-season All-Star Team, d’Arnaud was promoted from Low-A West Virginia to Lynchburg. The former Pepperdine University star batted .295 with four home runs, 19 doubles, four triples and 26 RBI in 54 games with the Hillcats.
In addition to d’Arnaud, the Hillcats also added catcher Eric Fryer, infielder Josh Harrison and RHP Nate Adcock, each of whom were acquired through trades made by the Pirates. Several players were promoted from West Virginia, including RHP Ramon Aguero, outfielder Erik Huber, RHP Noah Krol, outfielder Starling Marte, LHP Rudy Owens and catcher Tony Sanchez.
The addition of Sanchez, Pittsburgh’s top selection in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, gave Lynchburg each of the Pirates’ first round selections from the past two drafts. Sanchez, the No. 4 overall pick in the draft, became the fourth player chosen among the top four choices to play for the Hillcats in the past two seasons, joining Alvarez (No. 2 overall in 2008), RHP Brad Lincoln (No. 4 overall in 2006) and LHP Daniel Moskos (No. 4 overall in 2007).
Although Lynchburg struggled on the field throughout the second half of the season, the Hillcats recovered with a scintillating post-season. Lynchburg squared off against Wilmington in the Northern Division Championship Series. Despite the fact that the Blue Rocks had won 15 of the 20 meetings between the two teams during the regular season, Lynchburg managed to overcome two one-game deficits in the series and force a decisive fifth game in the Hill City. The Hillcats topped Wilmington 5-2 and claimed its first Northern Division championship since 2003.
Lynchburg’s NDCS victory set the stage for the first 460 series in the Mills Cup Championship Series in Carolina League history as the Hillcats met the Salem Red Sox for the league crown.
Following a 9-2 victory in the series opener, Lynchburg won game two 5-4 on a walk-off solo home run from Jose De Los Santos (pictured) in the bottom of the ninth. It was De Los Santos’ first home run since 2005, when he hit two homers with Pittsburgh’s Dominican Summer League affiliate. Lynchburg completed the series sweep with an 8-7 triumph at Salem Memorial Ballpark and captured the third Mills Cup crown in franchise history and the first since 2002. After compiling a .308 average (4-for-13) with seven RBI, three doubles and two runs scored, d’Arnaud was named MVP of the Mills Cup Series.
In addition to Lynchburg’s on-field success, the Hillcats managed to break the franchise record for attendance in 2009. 167,090 fans passed through City Stadium’s turnstiles in 2009, which tops the previous franchise record of 164,413 that was set in 2007. Lynchburg has drawn more than 148,000 fans every season since the renovation of City Stadium was completed in 2004. Prior to the 2002 season, Lynchburg’s attendance record of 127,883 fans, which was set in 1948, stood for 53 seasons.
Several Hillcats players earned a variety of honors and accolades for their on-field accomplishments in 2009. Durham was named the Carolina League Player-of-the-Month for May and was one of three Lynchburg players chosen to the league’s mid-season All-Star team, along with catcher Kris Watts and closer R. J. Rodriguez. In addition to being selected as a mid-season All-Star, Rodriguez was named to the league’s post-season All-Star team. Owens and Matt McSwain both earned Carolina League Player-of-the-Week honors in August.
Additionally, Watts, McSwain and Rodriguez earned team awards from the Lynchburg Hillcats Booster Club. Watts, who finished fourth in the league in batting with a .291 average and led the circuit in on-base percentage with a .405 obp, was selected as the Hillcats MVP. McSwain, who went 11-8 with a save and a 3.43 ERA, was chosen as the team’s Pitcher-of-the-Year. He finished tied for second in the league in wins (11), third in innings pitched (144.1) and sixth in ERA (3.43). Rodriguez, who posted a 6-3 record with a 3.08 ERA and league-leading 27 saves in 47 appearances, was named Lynchburg’s Reliever-of-the-Year. Rodriguez’ 27 saves rank second on Lynchburg’s single-season saves list behind current Chicago White Sox reliever D. J. Carrasco, who saved a franchise-record 29 games in 2002.
Hillcats outfielder Jared Keel was honored for his community service efforts by the Carolina League, which presented Keel with the Matt Minker Award. The award, which was established in 2008, recognizes the player who demonstrates outstanding community service over the course of each season. The Pirates also honored Keel for the second straight season for his community service work.