FREDERICK, Md. - When the Carolina League playoffs begin tonight at Frederick’s Nymeo Field at Harry Grove Stadium, there is a clear favorite. It’s not the home team.
In what has now been reduced to a best-of-three series, the Single-A Frederick Keys (68-71) host the Lynchburg Hillcats (87-52) in Game 1 of the Northern Division Championship Series.
With the impending threat of Hurrican Irma, the Carolina League today announced that both semifinal series are now best-of-three, reduced from best-of-five. That move was more likely made with the other series more in mind, Down East versus Myrtle Beach.
So Frederick will host Game 1 tonight and then play at Lynchburg tomorrow night and play there Saturday in Game 3, if necessary.
Lynchburg won both halves in this division, going 40-29 and 47-23 and Frederick got into the postseason by finishing second in the second half as the Keys won 10 of their final 14 games, going 37-33 in the second half.
But back to this series, Lynchburg went 14-5 against Frederick this year. And while the Keys had the best home record in the league (44-26), Lynchburg went 5-3 in Frederick.
But the Keys had a solid second half to make the playoffs. That was impressive considering the club lost players like Austin Hays, Ryan Mountcastle and Stevie Wilkerson to Double-A Bowie and pitchers Cody Sedlock and Keegan Akin ended the year injured. The Keys also lost for parts of the year key players such as Jomar Reyes and Alex Murphy to injuries.
But they’re in it to win it, despite Lynchburg’s strong year.
“They’ve got a very good team and we are certainly the underdog,” said Frederick manager Keith Bodie this afternoon. “They’ve had a team intact the whole season. The guys that started here are finishing here. Our club has not done that (as players moved up to Bowie). The guys that started here are not finishing. They’ve got very good pitching and they put the ball in play with some professional type at-bats. It’s going to be a challenge but I’m glad we have a chance.
“This is a team that wants to win. These guys are not ready to go home. They are excited about this and that shows me something about their character.”
On the mound, Frederick will pitch right-hander Cristian Alvarado (7-9, 5.00 ERA) tonight against Lynchburg right-hander Aaron Civale (11-2, 2.59 ERA), the Cleveland Indians No. 11 prospect according to MLBPipeline.com
A 22-year-old native of Venezuela, Alvarado had a poor start to his year but he’s had a big finish for Frederick, pitching to an ERA of 3.58 in the second half. He allowed one run his past two starts. In his last five starts, he is 1-1 with an ERA of 1.99. Over 31 2/3 he walked five and fanned 24. Alvarado’s fastball sits between 88 and 92 mph.
“He’s a strike thrower and he’s a good competitor,” Bodie said of Alvarado. “You wouldn’t know if he won a game or a lost game, walked 10, which he wouldn’t do or struck out 10. He’s cool as a cucumber out there and he fills up the strikezone. He doesn’t beat himself.
“He’s got a fastball, curveball, slider and changeup but his curveball is a little bit better than his slider. His changeup has been a good pitch with some depth for him. He stays at the bottom of the zone. When he stays over the baseball he’s got some action down in the zone.”
On offense Frederick led the Carolina League in team batting at .266 and with 126 homers, but the Keys were 10th and last in team ERA at 4.41. But down the stretch the club’s pitching improved behind guys like Alvarado and Reid Love as Frederick claimed its 11th postseason berth in franchise history.
Tonight the Keys will see if their solid play late in the year carries over and will be good enough to upset the best team in the league.
Baysox play tonight too: In Bowie tonight, the Double-A Baysox host Altoona in Game 1 of the Eastern League playoffs. Bowie (72-68) went 14-5 versus the Curve this year. The winner of this best-of-five series advances to play for the league championship. Right-hander David Hess (11-9, 3.85 ERA) gets the Game 1 start for the Baysox. Hess went 3-2 with a 2.25 ERA in six August starts. This is the seventh postseason in franchise history for Bowie and second in three years. The Baysox won their first Eastern League championship in 2015.
Keys down early: Frederick is behind 3-0 after three innings. Lynchburg hit a pair of homers off Alvarado for the lead. The Hillcats got a two-run shot from Mitch Longo in the second and a solo homer to right by Willi Castro in the third.
Keys get one: Frederick scored its first run on Shane Hoelscher’s RBI double in the last of the fifth to trail 3-1. Civale has held the Keys to two hits through five and both are doubles by Hoelscher.
Lynchburg adds on: A first baseman with some name, Sicnarf Loopstok, singled in a run in the top of the sixth as Lynchburg made it a 4-1 game. Alvarado went five innings allowing three runs and the Hillcats scored off Luis Gonzalez for their latest run.
Big rally for the Keys: Frederick scored four times in the last of the seventh to lead 5-4. Jake Ring’s two-run double made it 4-3. They tied it on Hoelscher’s groundout and went ahead on a Brallan Perez single.
But lead doesn’t stick: The Keys made two crucial errors as Lynchburg scored five in the eighth to go back ahead 9-5. Miscues by first baseman Hoelscher and pitcher Jefri Hernandez aided the Hillcats rally. All five runs were unearned.