The Myrtle Beach Pelicans are two wins away from achieving something that hasn’t been done in the Carolina League in more than three decades.
Myrtle Beach travels to Lynchburg, Va., for the conclusion of the best-of-five Mills Cup Championship Series seeking to become the first back-to-back outright league champions since Winston-Salem in 1985-86.
The Pelicans evened the series at a game apiece with an 8-3 win Sunday night at Pelicans Ballpark, and games 3-5 are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday at Calvin Falwell Field.
“It’s been a good series so far and it’s the two best teams in the league,” Pelicans infielder David Bote said. “It’s going to come down to the next three games and it’s going to be real fun.”
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The primary purpose of minor league baseball for the parent major league clubs and the minor league coaching staffs is player development.
But once a team makes the postseason its goals change, and though the roster and coaching staff have changed dramatically, the 2016 Pelicans know they’re carrying on the legacy of the 2015 championship team.
“In the playoffs you’re playing for something now. We want to get that ring,” said pitcher Trevor Clifton, who will start Game 3. “… I think there is a little bit more drive with our team. Winning it last year we want to prove to everyone we can win it this year, too.”
In the playoffs you’re playing for something now. We want to get that ring … I think there is a little bit more drive with our team. Winning it last year we want to prove to everyone we can win it this year, too.
Pelicans Game 3 starting pitcher Trevor Clifton
The Pelicans are the last team to win consecutive titles, sharing a title with Wilmington in their inaugural 1999 season when Hurricane Floyd forced the cancellation of the deciding game, and winning the outright title in 2000.
They went 14 years without a title before last season, and are the first team to play in three consecutive Mills Cup finals since Frederick in 2007.
Lynchburg, the Class A-Advanced affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, was 84-56 in the regular season and won both the first- and second-half titles in the Northern Division. Though Myrtle Beach finished five games behind Salem overall in the Southern Division at 82-57, its second-half record of 46-23 was the best in any half in the Carolina League since Kinston in the first half of 2006.
“What really got us going I think was at one stretch we won 10 in a row, but about six or seven of them we were down anywhere from three to five runs early in the game when our starting pitching was struggling, and we found ways to come back and fight and believe in ourselves to win,” Pelicans manager Buddy Bailey said. “When you do that enough it just breeds that, ‘OK, we’re going to win a ballgame tonight.’ That’s kind of where our players are right now.”
Myrtle Beach has won 15 of its past 19 games, and more impressively has gone 37-11 in its past 48. The Pelicans defeated Salem 2-1 in the deciding third game of the Southern Division Championship Series on Friday before splitting the first two games with Lynchburg over the weekend.
“When you do what we’ve done over the past forty-some games, it’s not one area or one player, it’s a team game,” Bailey said. “There are times when you have a short spurt of winning two or three, it might be one or two hot hitters, but when you’ve done what our players have done … it’s always somebody different and different guys are contributing.”
Myrtle Beach may be getting contributions from a number of players, but no one has produced quite like Bote in the postseason. He is batting a scorching .611 in the five playoff games (11 for 18), and has reached base 16 times with four walks and a hit-by-pitch.
Shortstop Andrew Ely is batting .421 in the playoffs, while right fielder Jeffrey Baez is batting .350 and center fielder Donnie Dewees is batting .333 and has a .588 on-base percentage while batting in the No. 2 spot in the lineup in front of Bote.
Myrtle Beach will be without Yasiel Balaguert for the remainder of the series because of an apparent leg injury incurred in the Salem series finale. Balaguert set a Pelicans franchise record with 96 RBIs this season, but Eloy Jimenez was called up from Low-A South Bend to replace him in the cleanup spot in the order and may be an even more dangerous hitter.
The 19-year-old Dominican Republic native is the No. 2 prospect in the Chicago Cubs organization according to MLB.com and was the Midwest League MVP after batting .329 with 40 doubles and 14 home runs at South Bend this season. He was 1-for-3 with an RBI and two walks in his Pelicans debut Sunday.
“I was so excited when they called me up, I just said, ‘Let’s get the ring. Let’s get the championship,’ ” Jimenez said.
The Pelicans have their starting rotation set for the remainder of the series.
Slated for the starts are Clifton, who led the Carolina League in earned-run average at 2.72; Preston Morrison, who went 3-0 with a 1.77 ERA in six Pelicans starts before being hit hard in Game 2 against Salem; and highly-regarded prospect Duane Underwood, who has an ERA under 2.00 in his two Pelicans starts since returning from the disabled list.
“They’ve been pretty solid and good,” Bailey said. “Underwood is on a bit of rehab but he’s a competitor. I like his intensity. He comes to compete. Morrison and Clifton have two of the best numbers of any pitchers we have in the whole organization this year for any level.
“That’s how we tried to line them up for the first round of the playoffs and luckily we’re back to them with the slate 1-1.”
Only Daniel Lewis threw more than one inning of relief Sunday and the teams had an off day Monday, so Bailey believes he has what he needs in the bullpen to close games out.
“Going into Game 3 we’ll have the whole bullpen ready to go with the exception of Lewis,” Bailey said, “so that was big what he gave us to get us to that point where the pitch total stayed down to where we have the whole bullpen available.”