Hicklen delivers Blue Rocks from brink

Royals No. 15 prospect stuns with walk-off bunt in semifinals

Brewer Hicklen tied for fourth in the Carolina League with 14 homers during the regular season. (Ken Inness/MiLB.com)

By Duane Cross / MiLB.com | September 6, 2019 11:52 PM

It was a wild night at Frawley Stadium.

Wild pitches in the eighth and ninth innings ramped up the excitement before Royals No. 15 prospect Brewer Hicklen delivered a walk-off bunt as Wilmington nipped Salem, 3-2, in Game 3 to stave off elimination in the Mills Cup semifinals.

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Salem took a 2-1 lead in the eighth following Tyler Esplin's one-out single to center off reliever Collin Snider. He advanced to third on a base hit to right by Tanner Nishioka and scored when Snider uncorked a wild pitch.

Cristian Perez and 12th-ranked Royals prospect Michael Gigliotti opened the ninth with back-to-back singles. Kyle Kasser bunted both runners into scoring position before Andrew Schwaab relieved lefty Dominic LoBrutto (0-1). With No. 8 prospect Kyle Isbel at the plate, Schwaab uncorked a wild pitch that allowed Perez to score the tying run and advanced Gigliotti to third. The right-hander then plunked Isbel to bring up Hicklen, who laid down a bunt single to plate Gigliotti for the walk-off win.

"I don't know if I've ever been given the bunt sign [in that situation]," Hicklen said. "When I was walking to the plate, I thought to myself, 'It would be nasty if I laid down a bunt.'"

Blue Rocks manager Scott Thorman had the same idea.

"[Thorman] put it on and they called a mound visit. I told the umpire [Drew Saluga], 'Hey, bro, I'm going to lay one down. Get into a good position and don't screw it up.'"

Wilmington starter and sixth-ranked Royals prospect Kris Bubic did his part across seven innings, allowing two hits and a run while striking out 11 -- one shy of the career high he set on April 12 with Class A Lexington. He threw 69 of 96 pitches for strikes.

Bubic retired the first 10 batters, six by punchout. The 22-year-old lefty chalked up three whiffs in the first and fourth frames. Salem, however, scored in the fourth on an RBI double by Devlin Granberg.

The Red Sox did not manage another hit against the 40th overall pick in last year's Draft. He set down the minimum 11 after Granberg's two-bagger, aided in the fifth by a double play grounder off Nishioka's bat.

"Kris was absolutely dominating," Hicklen said. "It was a roller coaster of emotions. I think this will get us rolling. It was a really big win to switch the momentum."

Wilmington scratched across a run in the seventh to knot the game, 1-1, as Isbel laced a two-out single to center to chase home Gigliotti.

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Hicklen admitted he felt pressure during the game, which climaxed in the bottom of the third when Wilmington loaded the bases with nobody out and he struck out for the second time in as many at-bats.

"Looking back at the last few games, I've left too many on base. I was frustrated at myself," he said. "After that, I hit two balls well at second base and got a little confidence back in my swing. I was thankful for that fifth at-bat."

2019 MiLB include

Entering the ninth, the 23-year-old outfielder was 1-for-12 and stranded nine runners.

"I'd put that scenario -- winning in the last at-bat -- in my head during offseason workouts," he noted. "Of course, I was hitting off the tee and visualizing a walk-off; I didn't expect to bunt for one."

Tad Ratliff (1-0) picked up the win, yielding a hit while striking out one in his only inning.

Game 4 is Saturday at Wilmington.

In other Carolina League action:

Game 3 of the Down East-Fayetteville series was postponed due to field conditions following Hurricane Dorian. The Mills Cup semifinals resume at 4 p.m. ET Saturday at Grainger Stadium in Kinston, North Carolina, as part of a doubleheader. Both games will be seven-inning contests. The best-of-5 series is tied, 1-1.

Duane Cross is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DuaneCrossMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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