On Wednesday night, the Lexington Legends took the field for the club’s first playoff game in more than a decade.
In fact, when the Legends last played postseason baseball in 2006, many players on this year’s playoff roster were still in elementary school.
Champions of the South Atlantic League Southern Division’s second half, the Legends knocked off the first-half champion Rome Braves 3-1 at Whitaker Bank Ballpark in the first game of a best-of-three series. They’re now one win away from clinching a spot in the SAL championship series.
Rookie phenom Nick Pratto closed the regular season on a hot streak and that remained unchanged on Wednesday. Pratto got the Legends on the board early, knocking home Kyle Isbel with a single to center field in the bottom of the first.
Lexington retook the lead 2-1 on Sebastian Rivero’s RBI single in the bottom of the fifth, then Pratto added some insurance with a solo home run in the sixth.
That was more than enough for a Legends pitching staff that has been clutch late in the year. Jackson Kowar picked up the win, allowing one run and five hits while striking out five in five innings. Janser Lara allowed just one hit and struck out three in three innings and Tad Ratliff closed out the ninth to pick up the save.
Minor League baseball is unique among professional sports in that winning championships isn’t necessarily a team’s top priority. Player development with an eye toward sending prospects up through the ranks of the parent team’s farm system is the ultimate goal.
Given that, one might expect minor league players to be somewhat indifferent toward the possibility of a postseason run. Not so with this year’s young and talented Legends squad, which features several players ranked among the Kansas City Royals’ top 30 prospects.
Before Wednesday’s game, left fielder Brewer Hicklen spoke about how he’d recently reflected on the paradox of playing on a team full of players whose ultimate goal was to eventually leave that team for greener pastures.
“Last night I was thinking about that very thing. A lot of people say minor league baseball is kind of individualized and that there’s a selfish aspect because you’re playing for yourself,” Hicklen said. “But I don’t see that in this team. This is a team that came together in mid-August with about 20 games left and we decided we were all on board with the goal of winning a championship. When you think less about yourself and more about the team eventually that’s going to benefit you individually.”
With the way Pratto has been playing down the season’s home stretch, his days in Lexington could be numbered. A first-round pick by the Royals in June’s MLB Draft, the 19-year-old first baseman entered the playoffs as the reigning SAL Player of the Week, closing out the final week of the regular season batting .429 with two home runs, six RBI and 13 runs scored.
Pratto has already lived through his share of big moments. In 2011, he had the game-winning hit in the Little League World Series championship game. He said a South Atlantic League championship would be something he’d cherish for the rest of his life.
“I’ve had some great moments, but this would be right up there with them,” he said. “A lot of us younger guys are just focused on helping the team win and enjoying being together. Everyone is doing their best to succeed individually but our main goal is to win a championship. If we do that our personal stats will follow and everything will take care of itself.”
Legends pitching coach Mitch Stetter, who pitched for the Milwaukee Brewers from 2007 to 2011, said a minor-league playoff race can help prepare young players for life in the majors.
“Obviously everybody’s main goal is to move up, but once it gets toward the end of the season and everybody’s been here for a little while I think they probably wanted to keep us together because we were in this playoff race,” Stetter said. “It’s good to keep that corps together down the stretch ... because in the playoffs everything is on the line. That kind of gives them a taste for what it’s going to be like when they get to the big leagues.”
Several young Legends appear well on their way to climbing the ladder to the big leagues. But right now, they have a shot to claim their very first professional baseball championship right here in Lexington.
Upcoming playoff games
7 p.m.: Lexington at Rome
6 p.m.: Lexington at Rome (if necessary)