Blue Rocks roll to first Mills Cup since '99

Lugo, other young Royals arms stay dominant through Game 5

Wilmington captured its fifth Carolina League title since 1994 and first of the 21st century. (Wilmington Blue Rocks)

By Bob Sutton / Special to | September 14, 2019 11:29 PM

FAYETTEVILLE, North Carolina -- Tad Ratliff would like to make this a habit.

The right-handed Kansas City prospect was on the mound for the final pitch of the Carolina League season, completing another pitching masterpiece for the Class A Advanced Blue Rocks.

"It's just so cool to throw the last pitch of a season," said Ratliff, who did the same during Class A Lexington's 2018 title run. "To do it again, it's just awesome."

Wilmington shut down Fayetteville, 2-0, in the deciding game of the best-of-5 Mills Cup Finals on Saturday at Segra Stadium. Rito Lugo (1-0) scattered six hits and punched out six without issuing a walk over six innings.

Blue Rocks pitchers didn't allow a run across the final 20 frames of the series.

Gameday box score

"We were used to tight ballgames," first-year Wilmington manager Scott Thorman said. "We didn't score a lot of runs this summer. We got enough hits and made all the plays we had to."

That was the case again in the winner-take-all matchup.

"Every game we go into, we know we just want to give our hitters a chance," reliever Josh Dye said.

The Blue Rocks claimed their first Carolina League championship in 20 years.

Video: Wilmington Blue Rocks win Carolina League title

"Our pitching has been incredible all year. We knew what we were going to get from them," Thorman said. "We've had the flair for the big hit. … This series was what it should be, right to the wire. That's a good-hitting team over there."

In the finale, Collin Snider took over for Lugo in the seventh and went 1 2/3 frames, permitting a hit and fanning three. Dye hit a batter and surrendered a single with two outs in the eighth, but ended the frame with a strikeout.

Just like last year when Thorman directed the Legends to the South Atlantic League championship, Ratliff was tasked with the ninth.

The Woodpeckers had a leadoff batter on base for the first time when Marty Costes singled to open the frame. A double-play grounder ended it.

"When it comes to crunch time, we try to throw quality pitches," said Ratliff, who earned his third save of the series. "I know Fayetteville is a hitters' park. I was not expecting a 2-0 game."

Complete playoff coverage

Ninth-ranked Royals prospect MJ Melendez, who homered in Game 4 and was behind the plate for Wilmington's dominant pitchers, was named the Most Valuable Player of the postseason.

"It's a testament to our pitching," Melendez said. "Some of them were on short rest and they lock it in and still come with their best."

2019 MiLB include

Thorman said Melendez's leadership was invaluable and his handling of the pitching staff spot-on.

"He really changes the game back there," he said.

Right-handed hitter Dennicher Carrasco gave the Blue Rocks the lead with an opposite-field home run in the fourth inning against Fayetteville starter Luis Garcia.

That was the only run Houston's No. 29 prospect allowed as he gave up three hits and struck out 11 in 6 1/3 innings before departing to a huge ovation.

Wilmington nearly extended its lead with two outs in the eighth, when Kyle Isbel lined a shot off the fence down the right-field line. But the Blue Rocks left the bases loaded when Humberto Castellanos was summoned from the bullpen and induced a flyout from Tyler Hill.

But Wilmington added a run in the ninth, when Melendez drew a two-out walk and scored on a double by No. 10 Kansas City prospect Nick Pratto.

Video: Pratto adds insurance for Wilmington

Wilmington won the series despite scoring a total of 11 runs across the five games.

Thorman and Ratliff are among the Blue Rocks heading to the Arizona Fall League, so they'll have a break of just a few days before the start of that action. Thorman plans to drive his truck home to Canada before heading to Arizona.

"It's worth it now," he said.

Wilmington won its fifth title overall, with the other four coming in a six-year span in the 1990s.

It marked the end of the first season in Fayetteville for the Astros affiliate. The franchise won the title last year when it played in nearby Buies Creek while its stadium was under construction.

Bob Sutton is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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