Hillcats claw way to Mills Cup crown

Lynchburg joins Down East as Carolina League co-champions

The Hillcats celebrate their eighth Carolina League title and first as an Indians affiliate. (Lindsay Carico/Lynchburg Hillcats)

By Michael Avallone / MiLB.com | September 9, 2017 10:08 PM ET

If a tough Game 1 loss in the Mills Cup semifinals was the impetus for Lynchburg turning the series around, manager Tony Mansolino will take it.

But the Hillcats' first-year skipper has a different take on the success of his club, and it begins and ends on the mound.

Brock Hartson combined with four relievers on a two-hitter Saturday as the Hillcats beat Frederick, 7-1, to earn a share of the Carolina League championship at Calvin Falwell Field. It's the Hillcats' eighth Mills Cup and first since 2012, when they were an affiliate of the Braves.

The best-of-5 Mills Cup Finals were canceled Friday in response to the approach of Hurricane Irma, making the semifinals a best-of-3 showdown for the tile. Down East took home its share of the championship with a 2-1 win over Myrtle Beach on Friday.

Gameday box score

"It was pretty cool. I'd say we sort of came full circle," Mansolino said. "We started off the year 1-6 and I remember sitting down with our pitching coach, Rigo Beltran, who tried his best to calm me down. He pitched in the bigs with some pretty solid teams and knew what we had here. We just focused on the development of players like we always do and it went from there.

"When you get in the playoffs, particularly with it being shortened to what it was, it always favors the lesser team on paper. We felt we were the better club coming in, but we had to deal with some adversity after that first game. But to lose the way we did and come back was huge."

Entering the playoffs with a league-best 87 wins, Lynchburg took a 9-6 lead into the ninth inning in Game 1. The Keys rallied for four runs, including a pair of two-out RBI singles that completed the stunning comeback and put the 'Cats on their heels. Lynchburg evened the series, 1-1, behind Indians second-ranked prospect Triston McKenzie's 10-strikeout performance on Friday.

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"We could have just said, 'OK, let's go home, we've got a hurricane coming,' but our guys aren't wired that way," the 34-year-old manager said. "McKenzie threw a gem and then to see Hartson come back tonight and do what he did after missing his last start with some shoulder tendinitis ... it was just cool. These guys battled from the time we got off the bus the other night at 3 a.m." 

In the decisive third game, Lynchburg jumped ahead in the third on a two-run single by Gavin Collins and a two-run double by Martin Cervenka one out later. That was more than enough for Hartson, who struck out seven and walked one over four hitless frames before giving way to Adam Plutko (1-0). The right-hander allowed a single in the sixth -- Frederick's first hit of the game -- and struck out two over 1 2/3 scoreless innings.

Ben Krauth, Luke Eubank and Argenis Angulo combined to yield one run and one hit with four strikeouts over the final three innings.

Down East sweeps its way to Carolina League title »

"We knew Frederick could hit. They're an older team but also one of the best hitting teams in the league this year," Mansolino said. "The way they won and the way they played was tough. We knew it would be a battle facing them, and it was. That first one was a tough loss, no doubt. But we're a very selfless team and I had no doubt that we'd come back and give it all we had. You never know what type of performances you'll get, but I knew these guys would give it their all." 

The son of former Major League coach Doug Mansolino used the lessons learned from his father and others in guiding the Hillcats to their first championship in five years. He also credited the ones who throw the ball and swing the bats.

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"My dad coached in the bigs for so long, he taught me a lot," the former infielder said. "I took everything I learned from him and combined it with the great coaches we have here in the Cleveland organization. I've had such a tremendous support system along the way, so I felt very prepared coming into this season. But without a doubt, we have good players and we wouldn't have won anything without that. I'm just very, very fortunate to be in the position I'm in with Lynchburg."

Carolina League MVP Ademar Rifaela drove in the Keys' lone run with a sacrifice fly in the ninth.

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

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