2019 Season Rewind: Rocks Never Say Die
Wilmington, DE - Before the Wilmington Blue Rocks would go onto playoff glory and win their first Mills Cup Championship in two decades, they had to grind their way through a memorable 140-game regular season. It wasn't always pretty, but this team had an extraordinary knack for coming through when it needed to most. They often won games in unremarkable fashion, but did it so consistently that it was remarkable.
A No-Hitter, A Crazy Comeback and a Division-Clincher Highlight Teams Path to Playoffs
The Rocks led the Carolina League with 58 games decided by a single score in 2019. They played 80 affairs with a margin of victory of two-or-less, winning 54 of those close calls. Most astonishing was their 41-17 record in one-run decisions.
They did it with an offense that struggled to produce all year. Wilmington finished last in the Carolina League in hitting and runs scored. They established new franchise records for fewest run scored and lowest batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage in a season. Yet the CL North first-half champs sat atop the division's overall standings for most of the 2019 season-140 of the campaign's 150 days. The last time the Rocks were not in first place in the overall ledger was April 26.
How did they pull it off? A simple one-word answer. Pitching.
Wilmington finished second in the CL in ERA and team shutouts. Their starting rotation featured four first-round picks and seven top-five round selections over the course of the campaign. Meanwhile, the bullpen preserved leads better than any relief corps in the league. The Rocks were 53-2 when taking a lead into the eighth inning and lost only once all year when holding an advantage going into the final frame.
In a six-month season full of memorable moments there were three that stood above the rest.
April 30: Rocks Get One-Hit, But Win, Scoring Five in Ninth Inning
In what may have been the weirdest game in recent memory, the Blue Rocks rallied for a 5-4 win over the Frederick Keys in a late-April game at Nymeo Field. The Rocks erased a four-run deficit by scoring five times in the final frame. Wilmington did it courtesy of just a single hit, which was its only knock of the entire game.
Ironically, the frame began with a strikeout of Marten Gasparini. From there the Blue Crew drew consecutive walks courtesy of pinch hitters Blake Perkins and Nick Pratto. That ended Travis Seabrooke's night as he was replaced by Luis Perez, who immediately walked Seuly Matis to load the bases.
Frederick then made a costly error when Yeltsin Gudino booted Sebastian Rivero's grounder to short. Perkins scored on the play and the bases remained loaded. MJ Melendez followed by inducing the fourth free pass of the inning, which forced in another run and brought Wilmington to within 4-2. Another errant pitch brought the Rocks to within a single score when a Perez wild pitch brought home Matias. Suddenly the tying-run was at third and the go-ahead run was at second despite the fact that the Blue Crew were still hitless on the night.
Frederick moved to within one out of a combined no-no when Dennicher Carrasco popped out. But Cristian Perez ended the no-hit bid and put Wilmington ahead to stay all with one swing. He launched a liner that bounced over the fence in left for a two-run ground-rule double.
"That wasn't a pretty win by any means," said Blue Rocks manager Scott Thormann. "But in many ways it summed up what this team was all about. They never gave up and they always found a way. That might sound cliché, but that was this team."
July 15: Jonathan Bowlan Tosses Wilmington's First No-Hitter Since 2000
For the first time in 19 years a Wilmington Blue Rocks pitcher threw a no-hitter. In fact, Jonathan Bowlan was a second-inning defensive miscue away from tossing a perfect game in the Blue Crew's 3-0 victory over the Carolina Mudcats on July 15 at Frawley Stadium.
Bowlan was dominant. The right-hander allowed just six balls to escape the infield all night. The only baserunner came on a one-out error in the top of the second. Wes Rogers hit a grounder to third that Dennicher Carrasco fielded cleanly, but his throw across the diamond sailed too high for an error.
The defensive miscue proved little obstacle for Bowlan, who immediately dispatched of the next two hitters. He did almost walk the first batter of the game, but ended up striking out Brice Turang on a full-count pitch. It was one of six three-ball counts he had to navigate. Turang did it again with two outs in the top of the ninth, patiently working a 3-2 count before swinging and missing at Bowlan's final pitch and setting off a jubilant celebration for the Rocks.
The 22-year-old Memphis, TN native finished his night with nine strikeouts and threw 98 total pitches, 63 of which went for strikes.
"Before the game in the bullpen, I was just focused on staying on top of the ball," Bowlan said. "I was in the details, in my thoughts. Honestly, nothing felt special or remarkable. It was just another day. I was focused on competing to the best of my abilities."
As the game progressed that focus narrowed as his goals got loftier.
"I was just zoned in on breathing," Bowlan said. "After the sixth inning, that's when it got real. The nerves got to me. No one said a word. I was thinking about mentioning [the no-hitter], but I just decided to stay focused. With nine outs left, when I went back to the bump, I was focused on one pitch at a time, one out at a time. Fortunately it worked."
June 8: Rocks Clinch First-Half CL North Crown With Walk-Off Win
For the first time since 2015 the Wilmington Blue Rocks secured a spot in the postseason. Wilmington clinched a first-half CL North crown with its 2-0 win in 10 innings over the Fayetteville Woodpeckers on a gorgeous Saturday night at Frawley Stadium on June 8. Blake Perkins smacked a game-winning RBI-single down the right field line to score Cristian Perez to put an exclamation point on the clincher and set off a joyous celebration.
With one out in the bottom of the 10th inning, Nick Pratto, who started the inning off at second, per the new extra inning rules in Minor League Baseball, advanced to third base on a passed ball. Perez drew a walk and then stole second base to put runners at 2nd and 3rd with nobody out. After a strikeout, Ricky Aracena attempted to bunt Pratto home, but the first baseman was thrown out at home for the second out of the inning. Dennicher Carrasco came up as a pinch-hitter and drew a walk to set the stage for Perkins. The outfielder laced an 0-2 pitch down the right field line to plate Perez to earn the victory.
The Rocks had to rally from an early 3-0 hole after the first inning as Fayetteville sent eight men to the plate and scored three runs against Jackson Kowar. In the third inning, Seuly Matias put the Rocks on the board with an RBI single to score Brewer Hicklen. Two frames later Rudy Martin singled and scored on a sacrifice bunt by Perkins and a throwing error. Wilmington drew even in the seventh when Hicklen roped a triple to left and came home on another Fayetteville throwing error.
"The way we won it just made it that much more fun," Hicklen said. "We're a team that never gives up on a game, so to be able to get to the playoffs with a rally only seems right."
Blue Rocks manager Scott Thorman agreed.
"We win in so many different ways we couldn't clinch with a boring old 6-2 game. It had to play out like this. It's a special group. They work hard, they stay positive and they get it done."
2019 Carolina League Northern Division Championship Series
Rocks Rallied Thanks to Their Trademark-Winning the Close Ones
The Wilmington Blue Rocks may have finished the 2019 regular season with the best record in the Carolina League North, but the first-half champions were widely viewed as underdogs entering their best-of-five Northern Division Championship Series with the Salem Red Sox. Salem had closed the regular season with 20 wins over its final 27 games.
The Red Sox seemed to pick up right where they left off in Game One. The Blue Rocks were trailing 4-0 before they had recorded an out and could never catch up in an 8-3 loss at Salem's Haley Toyota Field. Salem managed 17 hits-more than any Wilmington opponent in 2019.
Daniel Lynch received a rather rude greeting from the home team, as the Wilmington lefty allowed the first five Salem batters to reach, and the Red Sox jumped out to a big early lead.
Garret Benge opened the onslaught by working a full count and then stroking a lead-off double to center. Ryan Fitzgerald followed with a single to center and then Devlin Granberg launched a 2-0 pitch over the right-center fence for a three-run dinger. Keith Curcio kept things rolling with a triple before Kole Cottam capped the big frame with a run-scoring double to left.
Lynch lasted just four frames, allowing six runs on 12 hits. The UVA product fanned six and walked none, but yielded six extra-base knocks.
The Rocks tried to mount a rally, scoring twice in the fifth and once more in the sixth to cut the deficit in half. MJ Melendez doubled in Nick Pratto to get Wilmington on the board and then Ricky Aracena's two-bagger plated Melendez to make it 6-2. Pratto added an RBI-double in the top of the sixth to give the Blue Crew hope.
Salem slammed the door shut in the home-half of the frame, however. Benge launched a two-run homer to right-center against Wilmington reliever Robert Garcia to end the game's competitive phase.
For a second straight night the Blue Crew could not dig their way out of an early deficit, as Wilmington dropped Game Two, 5-2 at Haley Toyota Field. Tyler Espin hit two homers to key the Sox.
Salem did its damage with multiple runs in the second and third innings. Esplin got the scoring started with a two-run homer over the right-field fence. The Red Sox followed that up with an RBI-double from Keith Curcio and a run-scoring single by Triston Casas in the third.
The early action all came against Blue Crew starter Jonathan Bowlan. The righty lasted five frames, yielding four runs on nine hits, while fanning three and walking a pair. Bowlan did manage to keep the Rocks in the game. He wiggled his way out of a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the fifth.
That allowed Wilmington to cut the deficit in half in the seventh. Dennicher Carrasco opened the frame with a walk and one out later Nick Pratto launched a two-run bomb to right.
Thad Ward yielded just one run over six-plus frames for the Red Sox. The righty worked around four free passes thanks in large part to seven strikeouts. Ward was far from a one-man show, however, as all three Salem pitchers held the Blue Crew to just two at bats all night with a runner in scoring position.
With their backs to the proverbial wall the Blue Rocks were three outs away from their season ending in Game Three, but instead rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Salem Red Sox 3-2 at Frawley Stadium.
Trailing 2-1, Cristian Perez opened the bottom of the ninth with a single to right. Michael Gigliotti's hustle then turned a sacrifice attempt into a bunt-single. Kyle Kasser followed with a perfectly placed sacrifice bunt to put runners at second and third with only one out. Salem made a pitching change, replacing Dominic LoBrutto with Andrew Schwabb, who promptly uncorked a wild pitch, allowing Perez to score the tying run. He then hit Kyle Isbel with a pitch before Hicklen laid down yet another bunt that sent the fans home happy and kept Wilmington's season alive.
It was quite the turnaround for the Rocks, who looked dead and buried after a frustrating early part of the night.
With the game tied 1-1 in the top of the eighth, Wilmington reliever Collin Sniderentered the game and the Red Sox nickel and dimed their way to the go-ahead run. Tyler Esplin got things started with a one-out single to center. Tanner Nishioka then blooped a single into right, on which Esplin hustled from first to third. That allowed him to come home on Snider's wild pitch.
The Rocks offense could not get on the board until the seventh inning, but they scored three times over their final three trips to the plate to extend the series.
One night later Wilmington used another walk-off win to prevent their season from coming to an end, as the Blue Crew beat the Salem Red Sox 5-4 in 10 innings to force a decisive fifth game. Delaware native Tyler Hill was the hero, as he beat his former team with an RBI-single in extras.
The Rocks started the bottom of the 10th with a runner at second base per Minor League Baseball rules. Aracena quickly moved to third when Pratto reached on a sacrifice bunt. Hill then got the chance to send the fans home happy, as the local product sent a 1-1 pitch into left for the game-winning hit.
It was a fittingly exciting close to an absolute roller coaster of a ride over the contest's final three innings.
Salem broke up a pitchers' duel by manufacturing the game's first run in the top of the eighth. Rocks reliever Josh Dye plunked Ryan Fitzgerald with a one-out pitch and then Victor Acosta snuck a seeing-eye single into right that put runners at first and third with two outs. Dye then uncorked a wild pitch which allowed Fitzgerald to score.
Isbel jump started a rally with a lead-off single to center in the home-half of the frame. Hicklen wasted little time tying the game by launching an RBI-double to left three pitches later. That sent Salem back to the bullpen, as Joan Martinez was replaced by fellow reliever Yoan Aybar. The lefty struck out Carrasco, but then Pratto gave Wilmington its first lead on an RBI-single to right.Hill put two in scoring position with a double to left and then Melendez put the punctuation mark on the Blue Crew's big inning with a two-run double to right.
Salem provided some comeback magic of its own in the ninth against Blue Crew closer Tad Ratliff. The Red Sox scored three times to get the game into extra innings. Tyler Esplin roped a one-out double while Tanner Nishioka followed with a single that put runners at first and third and brought the potential tying-run to the plate. Jerry Downs grounded out, which drew Salem to within two runs, but put Wilmington one out away from a win. That out came too late to win it in regulation though, as Grant Williams and Garrett Benge produced back-to-back doubles to tie the game.
It wasn't enough, however, thanks to Hill, who had actually spent the season's first half with Salem.
Finally, the Rocks did things the relative easy way in Game Five. Homers by Isbel and Carrasco plus 10 strikeouts from Rito Lugo lifted Wilmington to the Mills Cup Championship Series courtesy of a 6-3 win. Still, the Blue Crew had to escape a bases-loaded jam in the ninth to celebrate.
The Rocks' offense was all about quality. They managed nine total hits, but five went for extra bases and two of them were long balls. They both came early, allowing Wilmington to play from in front on a winner-take-all stage.
Isbel set the tone with two down in the bottom of the third. The outfielder launched a 2-1 pitch over the fence in right to give the Blue Crew a 1-0 lead. An inning later Pratto got things rolling with a double to right and Carrasco followed with a two-run bomb to left.
That was when Lugo took over. The lefty had to work is way out of some tight spots, stranding runners in scoring position in the second, third, fifth and sixth innings. He did it mainly by missing bats, fanning 10, and throwing 64 of his 99 pitches for strikes. He allowed just one run over six innings, which came in his last frame. Kole Cottam got an RBI double to make it 3-1, but with the potential tying run on base, Lugo finished his afternoon with consecutive punch outs.
Wilmington added what turned out to be an important insurance run in the seventh. Gigliotti's RBI-double increased the lead back to three.
Salem mounted a rally in the eighth against Rocks reliever Josh Dye. The righty walked three of the four batters he faced before being replaced by Andrew Beckwith with the bases loaded and one out. Beckwith allowed an RBI fielder's choice and then a run-scoring single by Jerry Downs. The hit looked like it would tie the game, but a perfect throw to the plate from Isbel in right gunned down Triston Casas and preserved Wilmington's one-run edge.
The Rocks put the game away in the home-half of the frame. Kasser's single scored Carrasco and then a beautifully placed sacrifice bunt from Gigliotti plated Melendez to make it 6-3. Collin Snider worked his way out of a bases-loaded jam in the ninth to nail down the save and the series.
2019 Mills Cup Championship Series
Rocks Again Bring the Drama in Five-Game Victory
The Wilmington Blue Rocks began the best-of-five Mills Cup Championship with the momentum of a dramatic comeback in the playoffs against Salem. The Blue Crew had won three straight, all in highly dramatic fashion and seemed poise to win their first Carolina League crown since 1999. The only problem was no one told the Fayetteville Woodpeckers who almost left Wilmington's championship aspirations on the rocks.
The Rocks dropped a 3-1 decision in Game One when the offense failed to cash in on its chances down the stretch. Wilmington sent the potentital tying-run to the plate in each of its final three trips to the plate, but could never bring him home.
Things looked really bleak a night later with the Rocks' nine outs away from taking an 0-2 deficit in the series back to Fayetteville. Down 4-2 entering the bottom of the seventh, the Blue Crew got their comeback potion activated when Kyle Isbel reached on an error by Fayetteville second baseman Ruben Castro. Woodpeckers reliever Riley Cabral then hit Brewer Hicklen with a 3-2 pitch. The duo was still stuck at first and second two outs later, but Dennicher Carrasco came through with a game-tying, two-run single. His flair shot landed in the perfect spot in shallow right, allowing a hustling Hicklen to circle all the way around from first. Nick Pratto followed with a walk, which set the stage for a go-ahead hit off the bat of catcher MJ Melendez. He poked a sinking-liner to right that plated Carrasco.
Andrew Beckwith tossed two scoreless innings of relief to pick up the win, while Tad Ratliff worked a flawless ninth to nail down the save.
Delaware native Tyler Hill almost single-handedly kept Wilmington in the game early. The outfielder got the Rocks on the board with his game-tying solo homer to left in the bottom of the first. He then pulled the Blue Crew back to within a single score in the fifth with his RBI-single to left.
The series shifted to Fayetteville for Game Three where a rough night at the plate Wilmington on the brink of elimination, as the Rocks dropped a 2-1 decision. The Blue Crew actually staked to an early lead with a run in the second. Kyle Kasser got the frame started with a single and two outs later Melendez brought him home with a bloop-single to center.
Unfortunately for the Rocks that was the extent of their offensive production for the night. The Wilmington attack managed just four total hits and from the third inning until there were two outs in the ninth, endured a string of 20 outs in 21 batters sent to the plate.
There was no carryover to the next night, however. As was the case all year, whenever the Blu Crew needed a hero, someone answered the call. When his team needed him most Austin Cox responded in Game Four, as the Wilmington lefty tossed six scoreless innings in the Blue Rocks' 2-0 victory.
Cox was nearly untouchable. The Macon, Georgia native allowed only one hit on his way to the triumph. He did issue three free passes, but worked around them all in his team's biggest game of the year.
His offense did not do much, but clawed its way to an early lead in the top of the second. With two down and the bases empty, Melendez surprised Fayetteville starter Jojanse Torres by launching a 1-2 pitch over the right-center fence. The long ball from Melendez was the first RBI for the Blue Crew in 68 at bats versus the righty in 2019.
Neither offense could muster another score until the ninth when the Rocks manufactured an insurance run. Kasser opened the inning with a single. He was then sacrificed into scoring position by Ricky Aracena. Melendez followed with a walk, and one out later Cristian Perez singled in Kasser to provide Wilmington just a little breathing room.
The Rocks' relief corps was just as good as Cox. Andrew Beckwith worked around a walk to post a goose egg in the seventh. Then Josh Dye struck out the side in the eighth. The righty tried to come back out and finish things up in the final frame, but a two-out single from Chandler Taylor forced the Rocks to call upon Tad Ratliff.
Ratliff immediately yielded a double to David Hensley, which put the potential tying-run in scoring position, but Ratliff bared down and got Miguelangel Sierra to ground one back to the mound for the game-clinching out.
Just 24 hours later the Rocks were champions. Their Game Five triumph came courtesy of Wilmington's second straight shutout. The Woodpeckers did not score a run over their final 20 trips to the plate in the series.
Rito Lugo set the tone, turning in a sparkling six-frame start. The lefty did not allow a run, while working his way around six hits, thanks in large part to six strikeouts and no walks. Fayetteville's best shots to score against Lugo came in the second and the fifth. A pair of two-out hits in the bottom of the second were stranded when Lugo induced a fielder's choice grounder off the bat of Michael Papierski. The Woodpeckers got two on with two down three innings later, but after a visit from pitching coach Steve Luebber, Lugo escaped the jam with a strikeout.
Carrasco provided the game's first offense in the fourth inning. The infielder launched a 1-2 pitch from Luis Garcia over the fence in left to put Wilmington up 1-0. It was Carrasco's second homer of the postseason.
Collin Snider entered in the seventh and faced the minimum courtesy of an inning-ending double play. Snider came back out to start the eighth and whiffed the first two batters before giving way to Josh Dye. The righty hit Cal Stevenson with a pitch and then allowed a single to David Hensley, which put runners at first and third. Dye got out of trouble by fanning Chandler Taylor to end the frame.
The Rocks got some insurance in the top of the ninth. Melendez worked a two-out walk and then Pratto brought him in with a double to right.
Tad Ratliff entered in the bottom of the ninth and brought the tying-run to the plate when Marty Costes opened the frame with a seeing-eye single to left. Ratliff bounced back to get Papierski to fly out to left. He then worked a 2-2 count to Ruben Castro, before getting a grounder to third that turned into a title-clinching around-the-horn double play.
The Rocks hoisted their first Mills Cup since 1999, when a Hurricane left them as co-champs. It was the franchise's first outright title since 1997 and the fifth in franchise history.
"I could not be more proud of this team," said Blue Rocks manager Scott Thorman. "They came to the ballpark every single day with a good attitude and ready to go to work. Their resilience is unmatched. Our pitching carried us, but the offense came through every time we needed a run. It was a total team effort and a group that absolutely deserves to be celebrated.
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Carolina League Stories from April 9, 2020
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