A Little Carolina League History

A Little Carolina League History

Growing up around Lynchburg, VA provided its citizens few advantages. We continuously have to correct people’s perception that the name comes from a racist and violent practice (actually, the city’s named after John Lynch). Not all of us were Jerry Falwell acolytes, willing to believe that evolution was a faux science invented by homosexuals. Nevertheless, there wasn’t a lot to do. For your rock fans, the music is rather lacking. For your movie fans, unless it was a summer blockbuster, you probably weren’t going to have it coming to a theater near you.

But Lynchburg had one advantage over local towns and cities like Charlottesville, Farmville, Martinsville, or any other ville’s. It had an advantage over Roanoke, though Salem is practically a continuation of Roanoke. Lynchburg had minor league baseball. The first professional team in recorded Lynchburg history was in 1886 and since 1962, with each spring came a new season. Parent clubs came and went, but having professional baseball so close played a large part in me becoming such a fan of baseball. Before I was a Braves fan, I was a Lynchburg fan. And yes, at the time, it was the Mets that were in Lynchburg, but please don’t hold that against me. Or how I rooted for the L-Sox when the Red Sox came to town for seven years. Or the Pirates who were the first to play under the Hillcats name. Or even the one year the Reds were in town, playing under the ‘Cats moniker after “trading” high-A clubs with the Pirates.

However, imagine my happiness and excitement when a match made in heaven started in 2011 when the Braves affiliation left Myrtle Beach and came to Lynchburg. Sure, our park is by far the oldest in the Carolina League. While expanded and remodeled a few times since it opened, Lynchburg City Stadium first hosted a game on April 11th, 1940. By the way, the game played that day was an exhibition between the Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers. City Stadium’s not the biggest and doesn’t have the greatest concessions, but there is a great sense of character in Lynchburg and the memories of many its citizens from when they were children and standing in the parking lot waiting for a foul ball to come their way. Baseball in Lynchburg was one of its few endearing qualities.

A few days ago, the Hillcats accomplished something of particular greatness that is so rare, people wondered about its historical significance. Playing the Wilmington Blue Rocks, a Royals farmhand, for a series starting on Wednesday night, the Hillcats were looking to position themselves for a strong second-half in efforts to punch a ticket to the playoffs. Because the Carolina League uses a split-season format, the winners of the first and second halves go to the playoffs of each division. Potomac had won the North Division in the first half. The ‘Cats had finished in a tie for second with the Blue Rocks.

In the first game of a three-game series, the Braves squandered a 7-3 lead, but were able to push more runs across late to win 11-7. Hillcats relievers set the last eight down. That would become slightly important.

On Thursday night, the Hillcats sent Lucas Sims to the mound. It has not been the season Sims had hoped for coming into 2014. After looking brilliant in Rome last season with 134 K’s in 116.2 ING to go with a 1.11 WHIP, the Baseball America #57th best prospect in baseball has languished all season for the Hillcats. Now, it should be noted that Sims has only faced one batter this season that’s younger than he is. That’s a nice way of saying that he’s very, very young. But his numbers in June have been especially bad. Even with what would transpire on Thursday night, Sims still has a 6.04 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in June.

Sims rolled through the first six batters, getting three grounders and a strikeout, but he hit Jack Lopez to open the third. No worries. A double play followed and Sims was back on track. Sims’ control got to him in the fourth. He walked a pair and uncorked a wild pitch, but got a strikeout to end the inning. Hillcats would push a run across in the fifth, but in the bottom half, Sims walked his third batter. A passed ball, error, and a force-out scored the runner to tie it up. Yet, there was still no hits.

Though he would walk one more batter, Sims finished up the seventh with no hits allowed and a 5-1 lead after the ‘Cats put up a four-spot in the seventh without the aid of an extra base hit. Alex Wilson replaced him and despite his typically outstanding control, Wilson walked the leadoff batter and would walk another in the seventh, but he struck out a pair and was through eight with still no hits allowed. In the ninth, after a pair of flyouts, Lopez stepped in and with two strikes, Lopez swung at a pitch in the dirt. Cather Tyler Tewell tagged out the runner to end the game and despite six total walks, a HBP, and an error, the Hillcats got the no-hitter. They weren’t too excited about the accomplishment after the game and were given a little heat for not celebrating enough.

They would keep that in mind. The next night, it was Cody Scarpetta on the mound. While Sims was a big prospect, Scarpetta was just trying to stick around and get back on track. Scarpetta was a 11th rounder by the Brewers in 2007 and had reached AA by 2011, but like so many pitchers nowadays, Tommy John surgery was the suggested path after arm troubles propped up. Scarpetta would not pitch in 2012 and missed the first two months of 2013 before finally coming back to Brevard County, the high-A team for the Brewers. He struggled massively with his control, walking 36 in 34 innings and Milwaukee would cut him ahead of the 2014 season.

Trying to remain active, Scarpetta signed with the Lancaster Barnstormers of the Atlantic League.  Playing alongside guys like former Yankee Greg Golson and one-time Giant Fred Lewis, Scarpetta made eight starts for the Pennslyvania-based team and while success eluded him, the Braves saw something they liked and signed him in early June. He would made his debut for the Hillcats on the 12th and on Friday night, he was appearing in his third start with the ‘Cats.

The Hillcats gave him a 1-0 lead in the second and Scarpetta was perfect against the first 17 batters before a walk ruined his attempt at 27 up, 27 down. He would also hit a batter to open the bottom of the seventh after the “Cats increased the lead to 4-0, but a grounder and a pair of K’s ended the threat and ended his night. He struck out seven over his seven tremendous innings.

Lynchburg added another run in the top of the 8th before calling on Benino Pruneda to pitch the bottom half. Like Scarpetta, Pruneda had an interesting story. He was a good looking reliever when he averaged well over 10 K/9 as he climbed the ladder, reaching Mississippi to end 2010. His strikeout numbers fell in 2011 in a repeat effort with the M-Braves. Before the 2012 season, it became clear something was wrong with Pruneda. He would miss both the 2012 and ’13 seasons following Tommy John surgery. Before the injury, Pruneda could hit triple digits, including humming it in at 103 mph.

Pruneda quickly dispatched with the Blue Rocks in the 8th, striking out one and the Hillcats with three outs away from the unlikely prospect of back-to-back no-hitters. After the Hillcats did little with their ninth inning, Pruneda came back out to pitch the ninth. He would walk the leadoff batter, but a fielder’s choice and a pop-up to shortstop got Pruneda within one out away from finishing it up. Jared Schlehuber stepped in to face Pruneda. With two strikes and Pruneda throwing fastballs, Schlehuber nearly got around on one, sending a blast that was a few feet away from being a fair-ball two-run homer. Instead, Pruneda struck out the former Oral Roberts product to finish up the back-to-back no-hitters. Catcher Tewell caught the entirety of both games.

Ken Inness/MiLB.com

The Hillcats would extend their hit-less streak to 21.1 innings before a two-run homer early in Saturday’s game against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans put an end to it. It is thought to be the first time in Carolina League history that a team has no-hit another team in back-to-back nights. In major league history, no team has no-hit another team in back-to-back games, though it did happen on back-to-back days after the St. Louis Browns threw a no-hitter in the second game of a doubleheader following a no-hitter the previous day.

After finishing up their second no-hitter in as many days, the Hillcats celebrated loudly, maybe more aware of how rare of an accomplishment they had achieved was. They deserved it and as a long-time fan of Lynchburg baseball, both before the Hillcats and well before the Braves showed up, congrats ‘Cats!

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