Neftali Soto was a one-man offensive show on Saturday night with two home runs and a two-RBI double for Lynchburg as the Hillcats topped the Pelicans 4-3 at BB&T Coastal Field in Myrtle Beach's first game since being eliminated from postseason contention.
Myrtle Beach's (57-81 overall, 31-37 second half) chances for a playoff spot flickered slightly on Thursday night after the team rallied for a 5-3 win over Wilmington, but it was short lived as Kinston finished off a 5-3 win at Frederick to lock up second place in the Carolina League's Southern Division and earn a playoff matchup with Winston-Salem, which won the division in the first and second halves of the season.
"The last game against Salem here (a 5-4 loss on Aug. 25 before the team began a seven-game road trip) was a heart breaker, and we went on the road and lost three straight to Winston-Salem. That kind of knocked the wind out of us," Pelicans manager Rocket Wheeler said.
"We still had a shot. We go in and win the first game (of a four-game set) in Wilmington, but Kinston got hot. You got to tip your hat to them."
Just a couple of weeks ago Kinston was last in the Southern Division, while Myrtle Beach and Salem battled for second place in the division behind Winston-Salem.
But the Indians (71-66 overall, 35-32 second half) went on a dominating streak, winning 15 of their last 20 games, including a nine-game win streak capped by the win on Thursday.
Factor in a run of key players, including Dan Nelson, J.J. Hoover, Mycal Jones, L.V. Ware and Cole Miles, being promoted to double-A Mississippi, and it became even harder to gain ground.
"It goes back to the big leagues," Wheeler said. "The triple-A guys go up to the big leagues, the double-A guys go [to triple-A], we feed [double-A] and we get Rome. It's the nature of the beast. It happens every year."
The Hillcats (60-75, 31-34) jumped out early with a pair of first-inning runs after Brodie Greene and Didi Gregorius hit back-to-back singles, then both went home on Soto's 33rd double of the season.
Myrtle Beach answered in the bottom of the inning when Jordan Kreke doubled and Gerry Rodriguez slammed a homer onto the walkway at the top of the Thirst Inning Deck in left field to tie the game.
But Soto had a solo homer in the third inning as Lynchburg retook the lead, and another in the fifth to put the Hillcats ahead 4-2.
Myrtle Beach tacked on a run in the bottom of the ninth when Rodriguez singled, went to second on a Mike Jones fielder's choice, third on a passed ball and scored on a Cody Johnson single, but Samuel Sime hit into a double play to end the shot at a rally.
Soto, who was 3-for-4 at the plate with four RBIs, appeared to have doubled again in the sixth inning when it looked like Rodriguez didn't come up with a hard-hit ball at the warning track in right field. Rodriguez got up and quickly fired the ball toward second, but first base umpire Tom Katancik ruled it a catch and the third out.
Rodriguez was 3-for-3 at the plate and walked once, and Kreke was 2-for-4.
"It's not how you start, it's how you finish," Wheeler said. "Look at Gerry. Gerry had three hits tonight. You want to be remembered for that, to finish the season strong. It's not like they aren't trying, but of course we've got a few new guys here, too.
"The guys are trying hard, and that's all you can ask them to do is finish strong."
Paul Clemens (0-4) remained winless for the Pelicans this season, giving up four runs - all earned - on nine hits despite striking out five and walking none over six innings of work.
Myrtle Beach reliever Tommy Palica fared better, throwing two no-hit innings with two strikeouts before being lifted for Aynor native Thomas Berryhill to start the ninth. Berryhill gave up one hit but no runs.
Justin Walker (4-2) took the win with six innings of five-hit baseball with four strikeouts and one walk. Former Lamar High, Spartanburg Methodist and University of South Carolina player Jeff Jeffords threw two innings of one-hit relief with a pair of strikeouts for the Hillcats, and Nick Christiani earned the save despite allowing two hits and run in the bottom of the ninth.
Game 2 of the season-ending three-game set against Lynchburg is tonight at 6:05. Lefthander Brett Olberholtzer (5-6, 4.49) will start on the mound for the Pelicans. He will match up against right-hander Pedro Villareal (0-2, 5.40) for the Hillcats.