Cats claw Cannons

WOODBRIDGE Just when it began to feel like there might be a pennant race in the Carolina League’s Northern Division, the Lynchburg Hillcats busted out a convincing reminder that they are in first place for a reason.

That reason, of course, is pitching. Lots of pitching.

As if all-stars Sean Burnett and Landon Jacobsen aren’t an imposing enough top-of-the rotation combination, the Hillcats added Jeff Bennett back into the mix Saturday night.

Making his first start since coming off the disabled list on June 16, the 22-year-old Bennett held the Cannons to one hit through the first five innings and lasted long enough to give his team seven innings overall in a 7-4 victory that kept the Hillcats firmly in first place.

“During the winter I saw him throw a complete game with 80-some pitches,” Lynchburg manager Pete Mackanin said. “I thought he might be able to do it again. The only reason I took him out is because he hadn’t pitched in a while and I didn’t want to overuse him.”

Bennett missed 17 games because of a throat infection and had made only two appearances both in relief in the second half before taking the hill on Saturday. Though he had a rough time of it in the sixth, Bennett was more than effective. He allowed three runs on five hits, struck out six and, perhaps most impressively, did not walk a batter.

He was moving the ball in and out well,” Cannons first baseman Billy Munoz said. “He kept us moving around the box an he stayed ahead in the count. We got some pretty good swings on him, it just didn’t go our way.”

A former prep star, Bennett was selected in the 19th round of the 1998 draft out of Gordonsville (TN) High School. He led the Hillcats in victories (11) and ERA (3.42) last summer and has been a big part of the mix again the year.

In his previous seven games, spanning five starts and two relief outings, he’d put together a 4-0 record. He’d surrendered only one run in 20 1/3 innings leading into Saturday’s performance and saw his ERA drop from 4.23 to 3.31.

The Cannons haven’t typically helped Bennett’s cause. Two of his five first-half losses came against Potomac. He allowed four runs on 10 hits in 4 2/3 innings on April 17 in Lynchburg and gave up five runs in a loss at Pfitzner Stadium on May 21.

This time, Bennett and the Hillcats had the upper hand in front of a fireworks night crowd of 7,035.

Every Lynchburg position player had at least one hit, including three from all-star shortstop Jose Castillo and two from catcher Mike Lopez-Cao, who broke the game open with a two-run single in the fourth.

Lopez-Cao has appeared in only 50 games, but the Hillcats are well aware of what they’re getting when he’s on the field. Sworn in as a U.S. citizen on May 20, the Cuban-born catcher hit .304 in April, .375 in May and .306 in June. Playing with his third organization since originally signing with the Devil Rays in 1997, Lopez-Cao continued to swing a hot bat against the Cannons.

He tripled in the first inning but it was a sharply-hit single in the fourth that did the most damage. With the Hillcats already in front 2-0, Lopez-Cao ripped a two-run base hit past diving second baseman Ramon Araujo to seal Lynchburg’s 17th second-half win.

“I didn’t know much about him, but I was talking with [Cannons manager] Joe [Cunningham], who has seen him play before and he told me, ‘just wait, Pete, later in the season he’ll be in the middle of your lineup.’ He was right.”

The Hillcats (17-11) have been in sole possession of first place since June 23 and, with Saturday’s victory, they tied a franchise record with their 34th road win. Lynchburg is also on pace to establish a new club record for overall wins needing only 19 more to break the 82-57 mark set by the 1997 team.

“This was a must-win game for us,” Mackinan said. “You can’t take anybody for granted, especially [Potomac]. They’re much better than they were in the first half.”

The Hillcats are just as formidable as they were before the break. They reached one milestone and inched closer to another against Cannons pitcher Juan Mejia, who lasted only five innings and lost for the first time since June 2.

Despite a 5-4 overall record, Mejia has not traditionally fared well against the Hillcats. He was 0-2 with a 7.71 ERA in two previous outings allowing eight runs on 17 hits in 9 1/3 innings. Against the rest of the league, Mejia is 5-1 with a 1.41 ERA.

Most of Lynchburg’s success against Mejia came in May, just after the 22-year-old right-hander joined the Cannons from extended spring training. He had gone seven starts without a loss since June 2 and during that streak was 5-0 with two complete-game victories.

The Hillcats collected 10 of their 14 hits against Mejia, who allowed six runs during a 79-pitch outing that lasted only five innings.

Luis Landaeta had a run-scoring triple and Josh Bonifay, the reigning Carolina League player of the week, doubled and scored in the seventh. Bonifay tied a Hillcats record with his sixth consecutive multi-hit game on Friday and is arguably the hottest hitter in the minors with a .451 average and eight homers since the all-star break.

After having their Northern Division lead trimmed to two games with an extra-inning loss on Friday, the Hillcats jumped out to an early two-run lead against Mejia. Castillo doubled in the second inning and scored a two-out RBI single by B.J. Barns. Barns eventually came around on a double by Chris Duffy, who picked up his league-leading 119th hit with a line drive into the left field corner.

After falling behind by six runs, the Cannons clawed their way back into the game with three runs in the sixth. Until that point, Bennett had been on cruise control. He allowed only one hit a two-out, fourth-inning single to Munoz in five innings and had retired 15 of the first 16 batters he faced.

The Cannons finally got something going when they turned four hits into a three-run sixth. Christopher Morris’ two-run double ended the shutout bid and then Jeremy Luster extended his hitting streak to seven games with a run-scoring single.

Munoz homered in the eighth against Hillcats reliever Brady Borner in the eighth for Potomac’s final run.

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