The Lexington Legends returned home to Whitaker Bank Ballpark with a chance to make history on Thursday night. Turns out, they’ll have to wait a little bit longer to accomplish that feat.
With an opportunity to finish off a sweep and earn their second consecutive South Atlantic League title, the Legends fell to the Hickory Crawdads, 5-1, in the third game of the best-of-five SAL Championship Series. Lexington, the Class A minor league affiliate of the Kansas City Royals, will have two more chances to close out the series, beginning with Game 4 on Friday at 7:05 p.m. Should the Crawdads win to even the series, the teams will meet Saturday at 1:05 p.m. for the fifth and final game.
After winning their first four postseason contests, including a two-game sweep of Augusta in the Southern Division Championship Series, the Legends struggled out of the gate Thursday. Hickory pitcher Ricky Vanasco struck out the first five batters he faced and did not allow a Legend to reach base until Nick Hutchins drew a 1-out walk in the bottom of the third inning. Vanasco promptly induced a double play to strand Hutchins.
Hickory took the lead in the top of the third on a two-out opposite-field single by Tyreque Reed then went ahead 3-0 on Miguel Aparicio’s two-run homer in the fourth. The Legends mounted a rally in the bottom of the fourth, drawing three straight two-out walks and chasing Vanasco from the game without getting a hit. Tai Tiedemann came on for the Crawdads and drew a bases-loaded groundout to end the threat.
“We just got outplayed today,” said Legends Manager Brooks Conrad. “Their starting pitcher was outstanding, then they bring a guy out of the bullpen that gets them out of that bases-loaded jam, which was huge for them. That was a big momentum swing right there. Then the rest of their bullpen came in and just shut us down completely.”
The Legends got their first hit in the bottom of the fifth. After Rudy Martin drew a walk and stole second, Rubendy Jaquez brought him home with a single to left field, cutting Hickory’s lead to 3-1. The Crawdads went up 4-1 on Reed’s solo homer in the top of the seventh. Reed tacked on the final run with a sacrifice fly in the top of the ninth. Hickory reliever Nick Snyder picked up the save, retiring the last six Lexington batters, three of them via strikeout.
The Legends managed just two hits on the night, while Hickory had 10. Legends starter Charlie Neuweiler took the loss, giving up seven hits and three runs while striking out three over 4 2/3 innings.
Former University of Kentucky star Zach Haake will likely be the starting pitcher for the Legends on Friday. A sixth-round pick by the Royals in the 2018 MLB Draft, Haake went 4-6 with a 2.85 ERA over 18 starts with the Legends in the regular season. He’s currently listed as the No. 27 overall prospect in the Royals organization.
“I’m extremely confident putting Zach on the mound,” Conrad said. “Good kid, great competitor. I’m excited to give him the ball tomorrow ... He’s got a good fastball, he commands all his pitches and he throws strikes. If he’s on, he’s a tough guy to go against. He’s a guy that really wants the ball in this situation.”
The Legends can become just the fourth team in South Atlantic League history to win back-to-back championships. The last club to repeat was the Lakewood BlueClaws in 2009 and 2010. Greensboro won the first three SAL titles (1980-82) and Savannah won two in a row in 1993 and 1994.
“It would be really cool for us to win this thing,” said Conrad. “It doesn’t happen very often, a team winning two in a row. It would say a lot for this organization.”
If the Legends manage to join that list of repeat champs, the feat will be especially impressive given the roster turnover from last year’s title squad. Because of the nature of minor league baseball, most rosters are in a constant state of flux. The Legends’ lineup on Thursday did not feature a single player that started in last year’s title-clinching win over Lakewood.
Several players from that team have moved up in the Royals’ farm system and are among the franchise’s top 20 prospects, including pitchers Daniel Lynch (No. 3) and Jackson Kowar (No. 5) and outfielders Kyle Isbel (No. 8) and Seuly Matias (No. 11).
SAL Championship Series
Lexington vs. Hickory
Game 1 at Hickory, N.C.: Legends 6, Crawdads 4
Game 2 at Hickory, N.C.: Legends 7 Crawdads 0
Game 3 at Lexington: Crawdads 5, Legends 1
Game 4: Crawdads at Legends, 7:05 p.m.
Game 5: Crawdads at Legends, 1:05 p.m. (if necessary)