The Lexington (Kentucky) Legends continued their clutch hitting Tuesday and they are now on the verge of a South Atlantic League championship after a 7-0 victory over the Hickory Crawdads in Game 2 of the best-of-five championship series held at L.P. Frans Stadium.
The Legends now hold a 2-0 lead in the SAL Championship Series and will look to clinch it Thursday at home at Whitaker Bank Park. Lexington has won all four games during the two rounds of the playoffs and has taken five in a row over the last two seasons in the championship series.
The Crawdads will hope their luck on the road continues. In this the club’s fourth SAL Championship Series, they are 5-0 as the visitors dating back to 2002. Hickory will need to win three straight at Lexington to claim its second title in five seasons.
The story of the series has been the success of Lexington at the plate with two outs. After scoring three runs in two-out situations during a 6-4 win in Game 1, the Legends continued the theme on Tuesday with six of the seven scored. In the two games combined, the Legends have 11 of their 20 hits plus three walks after two outs.
“In this type of game, if you can come up with multiple two-out RBIs throughout the course of the game or a series, it’s going to completely change the series,” said Lexington manager Brooks Conrad. “Two-out RBIs are huge, no matter when they come. It’s been really fun to see.”
Crawdads manager Matt Hagen gave credit to the Legends for grinding out plate appearances.
“We haven’t been able to put guys away with two strikes,” said Hagen. “They’re a gritty bunch and had some things go their way tonight, but they played a good baseball game.”
As it turned out, Lexington scored the only run it needed in the third against starter Cole Winn. Rudy Martin (2-for-4) singled, stole second and eventually scored on Jeison Guzman’s RBI single.
Both Winn and Lexington starter Carlos Hernandez worked out of minor trouble throughout each of their five innings on the mound.
The Crawdads’ best chance to score came in the fourth when with one out, Tyreque Reed was hit by a pitch and Pedro Gonzalez earned a walk. After a passed ball moved the runners to second and third, Hernandez settled down and struck out both Frainyer Chavez and Miguel Aparicio to end the threat. The final pitch of the inning was Hernandez’s fastest of the night at 99 mph and sent the Legends’ dugout into the fifth with momentum.
“Our pitching coach went out on a mound visit and settled (Hernandez) down,” said Conrad. “He came up with some big pitches to get out of that jam. He stepped up big time right there.”
Hagen agreed the fourth inning provided a shift in the momentum.
“I tip my cap to their starting pitcher tonight,” said the Crawdads’ skipper. “He was upper 90s and with a breaking ball the entire time he was out there.”
With one out, Rubendy Jaquez singled and moved to second on Guzman’s grounder to first. Eric Cole’s line single scored Jaquez before Chris Hudgins capped the inning with a two-run home run to right to make it 4-0.
From there, the Crawdads’ bats went silent and their woes at the plate during the playoffs continued. Hernandez finished his night by working around a leadoff single in the fifth. Tyler Gray took over and struck out the side in the sixth, sending the Crawdads’ hitters into the dugout with frustration. Hickory managed just two base runners over the final three innings against Emilio Marquez, who closed out the combined three-hitter for the save.
After leading the SAL in several offensive categories during the regular season, the Crawdads’ offense is hitting just .145 during the four games of the playoffs with one home run. Hickory has scored just five runs over the last three games.
“You get into the postseason, this is what you get,” Hagen said. “You get really good pitching. We saw arguably the two best guys in the league against Delmarva (Maryland) and found a way to beat them. We saw their best guy on night one, and he was good. Tonight, we got a guy that was on top of his game … It’s natural for the guys to be frustrated because they have high expectations for themselves.”
The Legends wrapped up the scoring with two outs in the ninth when Eric Cole capped a three-hit night with a three-run homer.
The Legends are trying to become the first repeat champion in the SAL since the Lakewood (New Jersey) BlueClaws turned the trick in 2009-10. They would be the fourth team to win back-to-back titles in the SAL’s modern era that began in 1980. Lexington also was named co-champions in 2001 when that series was cancelled in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.