The Frederick Keys saw a number of players make their mark on the Carolina League during the 2018 campaign. The roster was highlighted by a young starting pitching staff, a breakout closer, and an MVP candidate. Despite the excitement brought with the individual performances though, the Keys were unable to match their 2017 success and missed the playoffs.
Frederick's break camp roster featured a mix of new faces as well as some familiar ones. Taking over for Keith Bodie after two seasons, Ryan Minor rejoined the Keys as manager. Minor previously led the team in 2013, and concluded his 11th season overall as a manager in the Orioles system. He was joined by pitching coach Blaine Beatty, hitting coach Kyle Moore, and field coach Jack Graham .
The most notable of the Keys returners was Frederick native Branden Kline . Previously a Keys starting pitcher during the 2014 season, the Thomas Johnson High School product missed all of the 2016 and 2017 campaigns due to injury. Among the newcomers was 2017 Jim Palmer Orioles Minor League Pitcher of the Year, Alex Wells . The left-hander was the lone newcomer to the Keys starting staff to begin the year.
A heavy road schedule in April proved to be a challenge for the Keys, with 16 of the first 24 contests away from Nymeo Field. After beginning the season 3-0, the Keys went just 5-16 over the rest of the month. Despite finishing next to last in both batting average and ERA, Frederick saw a number of players put together impressive first months.
Ryan McKenna led the orange and black offensively, posting a .326 average. It was good for fourth in the league, and the 2015 fourth rounder added two home runs and eight RBIs in the process. He was not the only newcomer to make his mark early on, as Tyler Erwin began an outstanding 2018 in dazzling fashion. In 13.2 April innings, the left-hander allowed just one earned run, good for a 0.66 ERA. Kline also allowed just one earned run and posted a 0.87 ERA.
May brought a wave of changes in the Keys roster, and it began on the very first day of the month. After Alex Murphy went down with an injury in April, Wilson Garcia was acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Phillies. Following his first game where he went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts, Garcia turned things around to provide a middle of the threat lineup. In the month of May, he launched five home runs and drove in 22 runs while batting .314.
In the middle of the month, the Keys pitching staff changed with the promotion of Brian Gonzalez and Kline to Double-A Bowie. It was the first Double-A call up for Gonzalez, while Kline rejoined the Baysox after pitching for them in part of the 2014 and 2015 seasons. In his second to last start with the Keys, Gonzalez and reliever Elvis Araujo combined to one-hit the Lynchburg Hillcats. The left-hander began the May 8 game with seven no-hit innings. After Araujo pitched a clean eighth inning, Conner Capel lined a one-out double to left to break up the no-hit bid and the shutout.
The promotions of Gonzalez and Kline meant the addition of left-handers Travis Seabrooke and Zach Muckenhirn , as well as 2017 third-round pick Michael Baumann . After going 5-0 with Low-A Delmarva, Baumann dazzled in his Carolina League debut on May 20. Facing the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, the right-hander fired seven innings of one-run baseball. Later in the month, Zac Lowther , another top Orioles pick from 2017 arrived. Lowther also impressed during his time with the Shorebirds, allowing just four earned runs over 31.2 innings (1.16 ERA) and maintained the same form after arriving in Frederick.
May's offensive highlight came in a 16-5 drubbing of the Salem Red Sox on May 23. In the game, Garcia belted two home runs and drove in a career-best seven runs (also the most by a Keys player all year). Frederick ultimately finished the month with a 15-13 record, and that was in large part due to the breakout month of McKenna. The outfielder bested his April average by hitting a remarkable .397/.470/.586. Going 46-for-116, McKenna added three home runs, 22 RBIs, and 27 runs scored to go with a 1.056 OPS. Not surprisingly, he earned Orioles Minor League Player of the Month honors.
June saw the Keys in a late playoff push to end the first half. After dropping the first three contests of the month, the Keys would go on to win 12 of their final 14 games going into the all-star break. This included a doubleheader-laden last homestand, where the Keys played 10 games over the course of seven days. After completing a five-game sweep of Lynchburg, the orange and black took four of five from Down East.
Despite falling short of a first half playoff spot, the Keys were able to go into the all-star break with a bang, as Daniel Fajardo hit a walk-off home run off Locke St. John to give the Keys a 4-3 win in the first half finale. Most of the Keys went home after the game, but five traveled to the Carolina League All-Star Classic in Zebulon, N.C representing the Northern Division. Wells made his third straight midseason all-star appearance, and he was joined by first-timers in McKenna, Erwin, Cristian Alvarado , and Preston Palmeiro .
Following the break, McKenna earned his first Double-A call-up. At the time of his promotion, he was not only having an outstanding season in the Carolina League, but one of the best in all of Minor League Baseball. He led all of the MiLB in hits (97) and on-base percentage (.467), and was second in batting average (.377) and runs scored (61). McKenna also led the Carolina League in slugging percentage (.556), OPS (1.023), and total bases (143).
For the second straight month, McKenna garnered Orioles Minor League Player of the Month honors. He was joined on the pitching side by Lowther, who was nearly untouchable in his first full month of Advanced-A ball. Allowing just one run over 21.1 innings (0.42 ERA), Lowther went 3-0 and struck out 23.
The Keys did not finish the remainder of June like they finished the first half, losing seven of their final ten games before dropping their first six in July. This included a nine-game losing streak-the longest of the season for the Keys. Despite that, Garcia continued to showcase his power. The switch-hitter slugged five home runs over the course of three games from June 27-29, which included back-to-back multi-home run efforts. On the first road trip of July to Carolina, Garcia once again had back-to-back multi-home run games. He finished the season leading the Keys with six two-homer games.
Following the road trip to Carolina, it was announced that Wells was named to the SiriusXM Futures Game. Joining fellow Orioles prospect Ryan Mountcastle, Wells played for the World Team representing Australia. Entering the game in the sixth inning, the Keys lefty retired both men he faced on just nine pitches.
The Keys finished July in a similar fashion to how they finished the first half of the season, winning six of their final seven games. This included a 6-0 road trip where they swept both Winston-Salem and Down East. The Down East series featured dramatics, as Stuart Levy hit a go-ahead three-run home run in the ninth inning of the first game of the series before the Keys swept a twin bill that took nearly seven hours to complete.
August saw the Keys nine games back of first place Lynchburg, and the orange and black could not gain much ground. Despite that, Frederick won three more extra-inning contests, which was a theme surrounding the season. Going 8-1 in extra-inning affairs, Frederick's .889 winning percentage was tops in the Carolina League. The Keys won in eight innings in game one of a doubleheader on August 4, 12 innings at Potomac on August 9, and earned a walk-off victory in 10 innings against Buies Creek on August 11.
The final game of August also began an incredible stretch by Keys pitchers. On August 30 against Potomac, Baumann made his final start of the year. He and Erwin combined to retire the final 17 Nationals on their way to a 2-0 victory. In the next game, Lowther took a perfect game into the fifth inning. The trio of pitchers combined to retire 31 in a row, the equivalent of a perfect game plus four outs.
Keys starters finished the year strong with Wells leading the charge. He pitched his way to Orioles Minor League Pitcher of the Month honors in August. Making five starts, the left-hander went 3-1 with a 1.97 ERA. He allowed seven earned runs over 32 innings while walking four and striking out 29 while holding opponents to just a .188 average. He finished the season ranking fourth in the Carolina League with a 3.47 ERA.
Playing just three games in September to end the season, the Keys finished the season with a bang. In the penultimate game, the orange and black trailed 4-2 going to the ninth inning. Cole Billingsley hit a two-run single to tie the game at four to send the game to extra innings. After Matt Trowbridge held Myrtle Beach scoreless, T.J. Nichting hit a walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the 10th inning. It was the second straight season that the Keys won in that fashion, as Shane Hoelscher completed the feat against Lynchburg on July 1, 2017.
The Keys would win the final game of the season to finish with a 65-72 record overall, and a number of players finished among the tops in both the Carolina League and Orioles Minor League leaderboards.
Joining 2017 Keys starter, Keegan Akin , Lowther earned the Jim Palmer Orioles Minor League Co-Pitcher of the Year honors. Between Delmarva and Frederick, Lowther paced all Orioles farmhands with a spectacular 2.18 ERA and 151 strikeouts. In his first full professional season, the Xavier product finished with an 8-4 record and a 0.98 WHIP while holding opponents to a .195 average.
Finishing behind only league MVP Bobby Dalbec of Salem, Garcia slugged 26 home runs on his way to becoming a postseason all-star. He also finished third in the league with a .295 average and finished fourth in the organization with 70 RBIs. McKenna joined Garcia on the postseason all-star team.
Alvarado concluded the season finishing first in the league with a career-high in wins (12) and innings pitched (155). He also ranked fourth in strikeouts (119), while producing 17 quality starts.
Erwin finished the year with a career-best 1.58 ERA, and finished second in the CL with 18 saves. His 50 appearances were four more than any other pitcher in the league, and his .183 batting average against was tops among relievers. He also ranked third in strikeouts per nine innings (11.06), and struck out a career-high 84.
The Keys begin their 2019 season with a seven-game homestand against Winston-Salem and Fayetteville. They will also host the Visit Frederick Carolina League All-Star Classic on June 18. For more information on the schedule and the All-Star Classic, fans can visit frederickkeys.com.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.