In two years as the Advanced Class A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans have established themselves as the undisputed class of the Carolina League.
The Pelicans defeated the Lynchburg Hillcats 5-3 Wednesday night at Lynchburg City Stadium to become the first team to win consecutive Carolina League titles since Myrtle Beach claimed crowns in its first two seasons as a franchise in the Atlanta Braves organization in 1999-2000.
Myrtle Beach won the best-of-five Mills Cup Championship Series 3-1.
The Pelicans are also the first outright back-to-back league champions since Winston-Salem in 1985-86, as Myrtle Beach shared the 1999 title with Wilmington when Hurricane Floyd caused the cancellation of the deciding fifth game.
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“When you look at the performance of the team these last two seasons, on the field has been remarkable,” Pelicans chairman and managing partner Chuck Greenberg said. “The following the Pelicans have gained across the country, leveraging off the relationship with the Cubs and the Cubs family has been tremendous. We couldn’t be more excited about the future. We’re looking forward to four more years and hopefully far beyond that.”
The Pelicans were a farm team of the Braves for their first 12 seasons and Texas Rangers for four years before aligning with the Cubs prior to the 2015 season, and last month they announced a four-year extension of their Player Development Contract through the 2020 season.
“We had four great years with the Rangers, but when we looked at the importance of tourism to the Grand Strand, and we looked at how Cubs fans travel and the national nature of the Cubs brand, we thought that was the perfect match and it has been everything we hoped for and more.,” Greenberg said.
ESPN’s Keith Law named the Cubs’ farm system No. 1 in baseball last year and had it at No. 4 in 2016 despite top prospects including Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber graduating to the Major League level.
The Pelicans had a wealth of talent in 2016. Shortstop and No. 1 Cubs prospect Gleyber Torres was traded to the Yankees organization in late July in a deal involving major league closer Aroldis Chapman.
Top-three Cubs prospect and second baseman Ian Happ was promoted to double-A in late June, Trevor Cliftton was named the Carolina League Pitcher of the Year with a league-best 2.72 earned-run average in 23 starts, David Bote batted .337 in 72 games, and the Pelicans caught a quick glimpse of the future with the call-up of 19-year-old Eloy Jimenez for the final three playoff games. The No. 2 Cubs prospect according to MLB.com went 3-for-11 with two RBI and three walks.
There was also obvious talent in the bullpen, which is largely responsible for the Pelicans claiming the Carolina League crown.
The bullpen allowed just a hit and a walk in six shutout innings in Wednesday’s clinching game, and in Myrtle Beach’s seven playoff games it allowed just two earned runs in 31 1/3 innings for a 0.57 ERA.
“It’s a good pen,” Lynchburg manager Mark Budzinski said. “Good starting pitching, a good pen and timely hitting is hard to beat.”
Though the Pelicans’ priority from a Cubs standpoint is player development, team success is a welcomed byproduct for the Myrtle Beach organization. Myrtle Beach went 82-57 in the regular season and 87-59 including playoffs, and was 46-23 in the second half – the best record in any half in the Carolina League since Kinston in the first half of 2006.
“We love baseball, so we’re thrilled when the team plays well,” Greenberg said. “Our responsibility to our fans and the community is to put on a great experience for our fans, most of whom maybe don’t know the score of the game, but we do, and it sure is fun to see the team play as well as it has.”
You go to spring training in February or March … and how rewarding is it that all of them are getting rewarded with a ring. Some guys will never make the big leagues, some guys unfortunately on this club are going to get released. So at least they know they finished with something on a high note.
Pelicans manager Buddy Bailey
In Wednesday’s clinching win, the Pelicans fell behind 1-0 in the first and 3-2 after three innings. Then reliever James Pugliese changed the momentum. The 24-year-old right-hander had pitched just one inning in Myrtle Beach’s first six playoff games.
That result: a hit, a walk and an unearned run on an error in the 12th inning that saddled Pugliese with the loss to Lynchburg on Saturday in Game 1 of the Mills Cup series.
On Wednesday, Pugliese pitched 4 1/3 shutout innings, allowing just one hit with seven strikeouts in relief of starter Preston Morrison, and got the win.
“The bullpen was phenomenal, and Pugliese was amazingly good tonight,” Pelicans manager Buddy Bailey said. “Morrison struggled but luckily found a way to get through three [innings], then Pug basically dominated the game.”
Morrison allowed seven hits and three runs in the first three innings. But he also didn’t allow runs after the bases were loaded with no outs in the first and Lynchburg had runners on second and third with one out in the third.
Pugliese retired the first 13 batters he faced with seven strikeouts, including six straight and the side in order in the fifth inning on just 10 pitches.
“I had a lot of days rest so my arm felt pretty good tonight,” Pugliese said. “My main mentality was just go and throw strikes and keep the ball down, which I did. My changeup was working pretty well, so when they did hit it was just a ground ball or flyout. They were out in front for most of the pitches.”
With Pugliese shutting down the Hillcats, a Cleveland Indians affiliate, Myrtle Beach scored three runs in the top of the seventh inning to take a 5-3 lead.
The Pelicans loaded the bases with no outs on a walk by Charcer Burks, single by Donnie Dewees and infield single by Bote. Burks scored the tying run on a wild pitch. A one-out line-drive single to center field by Bryant Flete plated Dewees with the go-ahead run, and Bote scored on a Jeffrey Baez grounder to third after the throw from third baseman Yonathan Mendoza sailed high.
Pugliese was pulled in favor of lefty Tommy Thorpe with one out in the eighth after allowing his only hit – a double on a blooper that deflected off the glove of shortstop Andrew Ely in shallow left field.
Thorpe struck out Anthony Santander, a switch-hitter who moved to the right side of the plate for the at-bat, and got Bobby Bradley to pop out to third baseman Jesse Hodges to end the inning.
Pelicans closer Ryan McNeil walked Dorssys Paulino on four pitches leading off the bottom of the ninth, but enticed a groundout and struck out the final two batters to end the game, series and season.
Bote went 2-for-4 with a walk and scored two runs Wednesday and was named MVP of the Carolina League playoffs.
He batted .577 in seven playoff games, going 15-for-26 with nine RBI and adding five walks and a hit-by-pitch to reach base 21 times in the seven games for an average of three times per game. Bote finished the season with a 34-game on-base streak.
“It’s just keeping the grind going and taking it one pitch at a time, not taking any pitches off.” Bote said. “To come out champions of the Carolina League is something incredible. First and foremost the team championship is the greatest thing.”