There is an old saying that says, “If you want to be the champ, you’ve got to beat the champ.” For the Hickory Crawdads, that is the task at hand as they will take on the defending South Atlantic League champion Lexington (Kentucky) Legends in the championship series.
The best-of-five series begins Monday at L.P. Frans Stadium. After a second game Tuesday in Hickory, the series shifts to Lexington for the final three games starting Thursday.
Both teams enter the series after sweeps of their division series opponents. Lexington took both games of the Southern Division series against Augusta (Georgia), while the Crawdads knocked off Delmarva (Maryland) in two straight.
The Crawdads’ path to the playoffs came down to the final week of the season. After Delmarva won the first half and was seemingly on the way to sweep both half-season titles, Hickory needed to at least claim the Northern Division’s wild card. The Crawdads sealed at least the wild card spot with four games to go, then claimed the second-half title in a tiebreaker with Delmarva.
The Legends’ path to the playoffs to defend their crown came down the final game of the first half in a three-team chase to decide the Southern Division back in mid-June. After Augusta swept the Legends in three straight, Lexington trailed both Augusta and Charleston (South Carolina) by 1 1/2 games with four to play. The Legends swept all four games at Columbia while the other two contenders split their respective series to give Lexington the division by a half-game over both teams. With the playoff spot secured, the Legends focused on player development and were 31-38 in the second half.
Neither club has lost a SAL championship series. The Crawdads are going for their fourth title, their second during the Texas Rangers’ affiliation after picking up one in 2015. The other two came during affiliations with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2002 and 2004. Along with last year’s title, the Legends also shared a co-championship with Asheville in 2001. Then affiliated with the Houston Astros in their inaugural season in Kentucky, Lexington won the first two games of that series, but the final three games were cancelled in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Subsequently, the two teams shared the title.
Here is a look at the names and numbers for the upcoming series.
Lexington (Kentucky) Legends (68-70, Southern Division champion) vs. Hickory Crawdads (83-52, Northern Division champion)
AFFILIATIONS: Lexington (Kansas City Royals), Hickory (Texas Rangers)
SITES: Game 1, Monday, Sept. 9 at L.P. Frans Stadium, Hickory. 7 p.m; Game 2, Tuesday, Sept. 10 at L.P. Frans Stadium, 7 p.m.; Game 3, Thursday, Sept. 12 at Whitaker Bank Ballpark, Lexington, 7:05 p.m.; Game 4 (if necessary), Friday, Sept. 13 at Whitaker Bank Ballpark, Lexington, 7:05 p.m.; Game 5 (if necessary), Saturday, Sept. 14 at Whitaker Bank Ballpark, Lexington, 1:05 p.m.
TICKETS at L.P. Frans (828-322-3000): All seats $9 in advance, $10 at the gate
RECENT SERIES HISTORY:
The Crawdads edged Lexington 6-5 this season with a 4-4 split at L.P. Frans Stadium. The two teams played on Labor Day weekend at Frans and split that four-game series 2-2. However, both teams had sewn up playoff spots and were simply trying to get through the season healthy and rested players. The teams played a series at Lexington early in August when the Crawdads took two of three.
Looking at the overall series since 2013, when the Legends and Royals began their affiliation, the Crawdads are 30-23. Because of the difficulty of schedules in the SAL, most of the series has been played at Hickory, where the Crawdads are 19-17.
This is the first playoff series between the two teams.
SAL Playoffs history: 1994, 1997, 1999, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2015, 2019
SAL Championships: 2002, 2004, 2015
Manager: Matt Hagen (2nd season)
MLB Prospects: (team rankings are by MLB.com): 3B Josh Jung (No. 1, No. 5 overall 3B, No. 56 in top-100), RHP Cole Winn No. 2 (4), SS Jonathan Ornelas (17), RHP Ronny Henriquez (19), RHP Ricky Vanasco (24)
Possible lineups (slash line (avg/on-base/slugging): C Matt Whatley (.234/.349/.321); 1B Tyreque Reed (.282/.369/.517) or Kole Enright (.258/.333/.475); 2B Jax Biggers (.282/.369/.353) or Jonathan Ornelas (.257/.333/.373); 3B Josh Jung (.287/.363/.389); SS Jonathan Ornelas or Frainyer Chavez (.255/.332/.315); LF Kole Enright or Ryan Anderson (.271/.335/.453); CF Miguel Aparicio (.251/.297/.431) RF Pedro Gonzalez (.248/.317/.471).
As of late Saturday night, Hickory had announced only the first three starters for the series
Game 1: RHP Ronny Henriquez (6-6, 4.50 ERA, 99 K, 27 BB) Did not pitch vs. Delmarva.
Game 2: RHP Cole Winn (4-4, 4.46 ERA, 65 K, 39 BB) Did not pitch vs. Delmarva.
Game 3: RHP Ricky Vanasco (0-0, 1.60 ERA, 16 K, 3 BB). Pitched in game one of the series vs. Delmarva. Allowed two runs on seven hits and two walks with 7 Ks.
Other possible starters: RHP Abdiel Mendoza (2-2, 3.15 ERA, 75 K, 25 BB). Threw six perfect innings in the clincher at Delmarva before giving up a walk and single in the 7th.
RHP Tyree Thompson (6-7, 3.30 ERA, 60 K, 44 BB). Did not pitch in the SAL playoffs.
Closer: RHP Kelvin Gonzalez (6-2, 5 saves, 1.99 ERA, 58 K, 15 BB) Saved both games of the series with Delmarva.
Set up: RHP Nick Snyder (5-3, 6 saves, 3.06 ERA, 60 K, 18 BB) Allowed a run over two innings and struck out three vs. Delmarva.
RHP Hever Bueno (4-1, 2.14 ERA, 54 K, 22 BB). Retired all eight he faced in game two vs. Delmarva and struck out three.
LHP Lucas Jacobsen (1-4, 3.90 ERA, 2 saves, 48 K, 11 BB). Did not pitch vs. Delmarva.
RHP Grant Anderson (7-4, 3.22 ERA, 8 saves, 50 K, 24 BB). Did not pitch vs. Delmarva.
Miguel Aparicio – 2nd triples (8), 9th slugging pct. (.431).
Pedro Gonzalez – Tied for 1st home runs (23), 5th slugging pct. (.471), tied for 8th RBI (67), 9th total bases, 10th OPS (.787).
Matt Whatley – Tied for 6th walks (62), tied for 8th stolen bases (29)
Grant Anderson – Tied for 9th games pitched (37)
Team Batting (key SAL rankings):
Slash line (BA. OBP/ SLG/ OPS): .251(2nd)/.326 (3rd)/.418 (1st)/.744 (1st).
1st home runs, 1st total bases, fewest strikeouts, 3rd runs scored, 3rd doubles, 3rd triples,
2nd WHIP (1.19), 2nd fewest runs allowed, 3rd ERA (3.35), 3rd fewest hits allowed, 3rd fewest walks allowed, 4th best opponent batting avg. (.230)
1st fielding pct. (.980), fewest errors committed (101). Catcher Matt Whatley threw out 33 runners attempting to steal, tied for 1st in SAL.
SAL Playoffs history: 2001, 2003, 2006, 2018
SAL Championships: 2001 (named co-champions after 9/11), 2018.
Manager: Brooks Conrad (1st season)
MLB Prospects: (team rankings are by MLB.com): RHP Carlos Hernandez (13), CF John Rave (22), RHP Zach Haake (27)
Possible lineups: C Nick Hutchins (.261/.302/.396) or Chris Hudgins (.247/.322/.438); 1B Reed Rohlman (.244/.293/.335); 2B Rubendy Jaquez (.243/.320/.352); 3B Nathan Eaton (.233/.305/.336); SS Jeison Guzman (.253/.296/.373); LF Rudy Martin (.213/.263/.382); CF John Rave (.253/.321/.339); RF Eric Cole (.240/.330/.382)
Starters were not announced as of late Saturday evening.
RHP Charlie Neuweiler (7-10, 4.36 ERA, 153 K, 63 BB) Did not pitch vs. Augusta.
RHP Jon Heasley (8-5, 3.72 ERA, 120 K, 34 BB) Allowed one home run, 1 BB, struck out 6 vs. Augusta.
RHP Zach Haake (4-6, 2.85 ERA, 90 K, 36 BB). 4.1 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 7 K vs. Augusta.
RHP Carlos Hernandez (3-3, 3.50 ERA, 43 K, 9 BB) Did not pitch vs. Augusta.
RHP Bryce Hensley (1-3, 3.05 ERA, 37 K, 15 BB). Did not pitch vs. Augusta.
Closer: RHP Brandon Marklund (4-0, 6 saves, 0.46 ERA, 44 K, 19 BB). Saved both wins vs. Augusta.
Setup: RHP Daniel James: (4-3, 5 saves, 3.83 ERA, 55 K, 24 BB). Retired all eight and struck out 2 in game two vs. Augusta.
LHP Ted Cillis (1-2, 3.12 ERA, 1 save, 21 K, 8 BB). Did not pitch vs. Augusta.
Eric Cole – Tied for 4th triples (6), tied for 6th walks (62), 7th RBI (71)
Nathan Eaton – 5th at bats
Jeison Guzman – 3rd caught stealing (13)
Rubendy Jaquez – 7th stolen bases (30)
Reed Rohlman – 8th at-bats
Chase Vallot – 5th strikeouts (145)
Jon Heasley – 3rd ERA (3.12), 4th WHIP (1.13)
Charlie Neuweiler – 1st innings pitched, tied for 1st starts (27), 2nd runs allowed, tied for 2nd earned runs allowed, tied for 2nd home runs allowed (17), 3rd walks, 3rd strikeouts, 6th hits allowed, tied for 6th losses (10), tied for 7th hit batters (13)
Team Batting (key SAL rankings):
Slash line (BA. OBP/ SLG/ OPS): .237 (8th)/.311 (9th)/.360 (7th)/.671 (8th).
3rd strikeouts, 5th steals, 6th HRs, 8th hits, 9th runs scored
4th strikeouts, T-4th HRs allowed (100), 7th ERA (3.68), 7th WHIP (1.25), T-11th saves (30)
Last in fielding (.969), leads the SAL in errors committed (161), fewest steals allowed