With a young, talented roster that includes several of the Kansas City Royals’ top-rated prospects, the Lexington Legends are in the midst of a rare playoff run.
The Legends evened the best-of-five South Atlantic League championship series 1-1 with a 5-2 victory over the Lakewood BlueClaws at Whitaker Bank Ballpark on Tuesday night. Now the series shifts to Lakewood, New Jersey, where Lexington must win two of three games to secure the club’s first SAL title since its inaugural season in 2001. That year, the Legends won the first two games of the championship series and were declared the winners when the rest of the games were canceled in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
This season marks just the fourth time in team history the Legends have made the playoffs, and in mid-August the club was dealt a blow that could have easily derailed its pennant chase.
Rookie outfielder Seuly Matias took the South Atlantic League by storm this season. The 20-year-old from the Dominican Republic led all levels of minor league baseball in home runs for much of the year and broke the Legends’ single-season home-run record in July.
But Matias was shut down for the season in late August in the heat of the playoff chase after a freak accident in which he suffered a deep laceration to his thumb while loading his luggage onto the team bus. The Legends lost their best power hitter, but a familiar face came rushing to the rescue.
Second-year pro Brewer Hicklen spent the early portion of this season with the Legends before being promoted to Class A Advanced Wilmington. After Matias was injured, Royals management made the decision to send Hicklen back to Lexington. Typically occupying the clean-up spot vacated by Matias, Hicklen has thrived in his second stint with the Legends. Over his previous 10 games heading into Tuesday, including the final two regular-season series during which the Legends clinched their playoff berth, Hicklen posted a batting average of .314 to go along with four home runs and 13 RBI. He homered in Lexington’s 6-5 loss to open the series against Lakewood, and had another RBI in Tuesday’s win.
Before the game, Hicklen spoke about the roller-coaster ride his season has become.
“I’ve gotten to see a lot of the United States in one year,” he said. “I think it’s like 18 or 20 states I’ve been in in just the last 12 months. To be able to see that is pretty neat.”
Hicklen said it was a bit jarring to be sent back to Lexington after a month in Wilmington, but it didn’t take him long to embrace the chase for a title.
“It took me, I’d say, about three or four hours to kind of swallow what was going on. But I knew I came down here for one goal and that’s to win a championship,” Hicklen said.
Rookie center fielder Kyle Isbel has also been instrumental in the Legends’ late-season success. In 39 games since being promoted from rookie-league Idaho Falls, Isbel is batting .289 with three home runs and 14 RBI. Isbel said Hicklen has been invaluable in Matias’ absence.
“Seuly was a tough one to lose,” Isbel said. “Brewer came back down kind of when I came up here and he’s played great. He plays hard every day and that’s all you can ask for. He gives it everything he has.”
Hicklen and his teammates undoubtedly hope to continue their march up the minor-league ranks in pursuit of their major-league dreams in the near future. But Hicklen said the Legends are determined to seize the prize that’s there for the taking in the present.
“We all came together this afternoon and all the guys are on board, all the guys have the same goal and that’s to win a championship. And we’re going to do whatever it takes to do that.”
Upcoming playoff games
Thursday: Lexington at Lakewood, 7:05 p.m.
Friday: Lexington at Lakewood, 7:05 p.m.
Saturday: Lexington at Lakewood, 7:05 p.m. (if necessary)