With a playoff spot in hand, the Hickory Crawdads were left to complete a historic season Monday afternoon at L.P. Frans Stadium.
In front of 2,429 taking in the Labor Day matinee, the Crawdads defeated the Lexington (Kentucky) Legends 3-1 to close out the 2019 South Atlantic League regular season.
With the win, the Crawdads finished out the season with the best record by winning percentage in the club’s 27-season history. Needing a win in the finale to claim the mark, Hickory finished 83-52 with a .6418 winning percentage., just besting the 1994 team, which went 86-54 for a .6413 percentage.
While Crawdads manager Matt Hagen knows his team has a bigger prize in mind, he was appreciative of the totality of the season’s body of work.
“We didn’t set out with that as a goal in mind,” said Hagen. “But it’ll be nice little side note at the end of the season. We’ll wear it proudly.”
The win also enabled the Crawdads to forge a tie for the second-half Northern Division title with the Delmarva (Maryland) Shorebirds, who will be the Crawdads' opponent in the first round of the SAL playoffs beginning Wednesday at L.P. Frans Stadium. Both teams finished 42-27 in the second half. Hickory had already clinched a playoff spot last Thursday and the divisional finish did not affect the playoff schedule for the upcoming series. After Game 1 Wednesday, the two teams travel to Salisbury, Maryland, to complete the best-of-three series. Game 2 is scheduled Friday with Game 3, if necessary, on Saturday. The winner of that series will meet the winner of the Southern Division series between Lexington, the defending SAL champions, and Augusta (Georgia), which also begins Wednesday.
Concerning Monday’s game, the Crawdads' win also gave them a split in the four-game series with the Legends. As happy as Hagen was with the win, the agenda for the weekend was to get through healthy and get several regulars much needed rest.
“We wanted to have everybody play,” Hagen said. “Rest guys that we thought needed a day off. Let everybody pitch and make sure that the guys got fresh for Wednesday night.”
As it turned out, Hickory scored the runs it needed in the second inning against starter Carlos Hernandez. With two outs, Pedro Gonzalez earned a four-pitch walk. Kole Enright then jumped a first-pitch fastball and sent it well over the 32-foot high billboards in right for his 10th home run with Hickory. Enight become the eighth member of the team with a double-digit home run total. As a team, the Crawdads finished with a SAL-high 140 home runs, which is the second-highest mark in club history behind the 2013 team.
Enright’s blast was more than enough for the Crawdads' trio of pitchers. In a tune-up outing for the playoffs, Cole Winn pitched a perfect first before turning the ball over to new hurler Sergio Pacheco. Promoted to Hickory from the Arizona Summer League Rangers, the 20-year-old Venezuelan was sharp over his six innings of relief. Pacheco (1-0) allowed one unearned run on two hits and two walks with six strikeouts.
The Legends (68-70 overall, 31-38 second half) scored a run off Pacheco in the seventh. Chris Hudgins reached on an infield hit and moved to second on a throwing error by Frainyer Chavez. A pair of grounders to second were enough bring Hudgins in to score.
Hernandez (3-3) was electric for the Legends in the hard-luck loss. The right-hander, throwing up to 99 mph, allowed just the two runs on three hits and struck out eight over six innings.
The Crawdads added an insurance run in the eighth when Tyreque Reed’s shallow fly ball to right eluded the diving catch attempt by Eric Cole and allowed Jonathan Ornelas to score from third.
Daniel Robert pitched the final two innings of relief for his first save with the Crawdads.