If the Carolina League semifinals proved anything, it was that home-field advantage was paramount. After losing the first two games in Salem, Class A Advanced Wilmington completed a comeback for the ages.
Royals left-hander Rito Lugo struck out 10 over six innings as the Blue Rocks defeated Salem, 6-3, on Sunday at Frawley Stadium, advancing to the Mills Cup Finals for the first time since 2015. He gave up a run on five hits and a pair of walks as Wilmington took the decisive fifth game of the semifinal series.
Gameday box score
Lugo (1-0) blanked the Red Sox until the sixth frame, when he surrendered back-to-back one-out doubles to Keith Curcio and Kole Cottam. After walking top Red Sox prospect Triston Casas, the left-hander struck out Tyler Esplin and Tanner Nishioka, exiting with a 3-1 lead after throwing 64 of 99 pitches for strikes. The punchouts were one shy of the career high he set on Aug. 19, 2018 for Rookie Advanced Idaho Falls.
Wilmington never trailed after Royals No. 8 prospect Kyle Isbel cranked a solo homer over the right-field fence with two outs in the third. Dennicher Carrasco smacked a two-run blast an inning later, scoring 10th-ranked Nick Pratto to extend the lead to 3-0.
"We never really counted ourselves out (of the series)," Pratto said. "We knew this was going to be a dogfight the way our offenses are. Our pitching came around the last couple of games. Winning is one of the sweetest things to be a part of.
"Our chemistry is off the charts. We are fighting till the end every day. You see it in the locker room and on the field."
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Royals No. 12 prospect Michael Gigliotti tagged Alex Scherff for an RBI double in the seventh, but Salem nearly tied it an inning later. After loading the bases, Esplin drove in a run with a fielder's choice and Jerry Downs singled home Cottam, but Casas was throwing out trying to score the tying run.
Kyle Kasser gave the Blue Rocks some insurance with an RBI single in the bottom of the inning, but the Red Sox loaded the bases again in the ninth on singles by Victor Acosta, Cottam and Casas. With two outs, right-hander Collin Snider got Esplin to pop to shortstop, setting off a celebration.
The Mills Cup Finals begins at 6:35 p.m. ET on Tuesday in Wilmington.
In other Carolina League action:
Woodpeckers 6, Wood Ducks 3
With a ticket to the Championship Series on the line, Shawn Dubin didn't disappoint. The Astros right-hander allowed an unearned run on two hits and two walks, striking out seven, over six innings. Houston's No. 9 prospect Jeremy Pena collected two hits, a walk and a run. Texas' No. 2 prospect Sam Huff singled in the fourth. Tenth-ranked Sherten Apostel plated two runs. Leovanny Rodriguez fired a scoreless ninth to pick up the save. Gameday box score