The Lexington Legends are one win away from their second consecutive South Atlantic League Championship, and if the 2019 Southern Division champions eventually raise the overall league trophy again it will be easy to figure out why.
Lexington won six of its final eight games of the regular season and now has won its first four games of the postseason. During that 12-game stretch, the Legends have allowed 2.17 runs per game.
Lexington’s Class A minor league baseball team was even more stingy than that on Tuesday night at Hickory, N.C. Venezuelan-born right-hander Carlos Hernandez started Game 2 of the Legends’ South Atlantic League Championship Series against the Hickory Crawdads and pitched five shutout innings to lead Lexington to a 7-0 victory.
The victory gave the Legends a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series and sent them home with three potential opportunities to claim the league championship at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. Lexington will try to complete the sweep Thursday at 7:05 p.m. Games 4 and 5, if necessary, are set for 7:05 p.m. Friday and 1:05 p.m. Saturday.
No team has won back-to-back South Atlantic League titles since the Lakewood BlueClaws in 2009 and 2010, and only two other teams have ever accomplished the feat. Savannah won two in a row in 1993 and 1994. Greensboro won three straight from 1980-82.
Hernandez allowed only two hits, struck out six and walked three in his five innings of work Tuesday night.
“Carlos, he’s got a live arm, he could really bring it,” Lexington catcher Chris Hudgins told Shlomo Sprung of MILB.com. “And then he’s got two great off-speed pitches. And when he commands that, I would not want to be the hitter in that situation.”
Hernandez walked Jax Biggers in the first and Pedro Gonzalez in the second but didn’t give up a hit until Kole Enright led off the third with a single. In the fourth, the right-hander hit a batter and walked another as the Crawdads put runners at second and third with one out. But he struck out Frainyer Chavez and Miguel Aparicio to preserve a 1-0 lead.
Hernandez, the No. 13 prospect in the Kansas City Royals’ organization, gave up another leadoff single in the fifth to Matt Whatley, then set down the next three batters.
Hudgins’ plan for the Legends pitching staff was to get ahead early in the count and try to pitch to the team’s defense.
“A lot of them are early swingers, aggressive,” he said of the Crawdads, “so just trying to get fastballs over the plate, get some off-speed in there for first-pitch strikes.”
Hernandez had not pitched since Sept. 2 in the Legends’ regular-season finale against Hickory when he allowed two runs on six hits over six innings. Facing the same lineup in Game 2 of the championship series, he threw 54 of 89 pitches for strikes.
“Our relievers have been really good the past couple of weeks,” Hudgins said, “not walking any guys, really going after them.”
The Legends opened the scoring in the second on an RBI single by Jeison Guzman. Eric Cole went 3-for-5 with a run-scoring single in the fourth and a three-run homer in the ninth. Hudgins had a two-run homer in the fourth.
“I’ve been pulling off balls a lot and my approach was get something out over (the plate) and stay on it,” Hudgins said. “That was big for me. I was struggling a little bit.”
Crawdads at Legends
What: Game 3 of best-of-five South Atlantic League Championship Series
Where: Whitaker Bank Ballpark in Lexington
When: 7:05 p.m.
Tickets: Range from $9 to $18. Available at LexingtonLegends.com.