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Rays Minor League Baseball Road Trip: A guide to North Carolina — Game 2

Game 2: Charleston RiverDogs versus Kannapolis Cannon Ballers at Atrium Health Ballpark June 29, 2021

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As highlighted in my initial DRaysBay post titled “Rays Minor League Baseball Road Trip: A guide to North Carolina” the Tampa’s Low-A class team, the Charleston RiverDogs play two six game away series versus North Carolina based members of the Low-A Class League. The first bridged late June into July and the other is in mid September.

Since the Rays’ AAA team, the Durham Bulls, is centrally located in North Carolina, the road trip offers Tampa Bay Rays and Durham Bulls fans the opportunity to see a larger number of the Rays MLB Top 30 Prospect in action on the field. My second stop on the road trip was to see the Charleston RiverDogs play an away game versus the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers (Chicago White Sox).

On Tuesday, June 29th the RiverDogs opened a series versus the Cannon Ballers at their ballpark—Atrium Health Ballpark in Kannapolis, NC. That day I attended game 1 of the series. Entering the game, the Charleston RiverDogs were leading the South Division of the Low-A Class League with a 31W:15L record. On the other hand, the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers, who struggled quite a bit early in the season, were in last place in the league’s Central Division. However, over the prior three weeks in June, the Cannon Ballers got a little hot and were 10W:8L in those eighteen games.

Atrium Health Ballpark is the newest Minor League baseball stadium in North Carolina. The ballpark was completed for the start of the 2020 season; however, due to the cancellation of the play of Minor League ball that year 2021 is its inaugural season and that of its newly named team—the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers.

The Cannon Ballers ballpark, which is shown in the photo above, is unique in that it is also a public park. Therefore, access to the stadium and its facilities are open to the public from sunrise to sunset on days when there is no game and on game days until three hours before game time. In fact, the ballpark has a wrap around concourse that serves as a walking trail for local people and visitors. The trail is named LOOP THE LOOP and has markers along its path indentifying the distance walked.

Also, the stadium has an extensive children’s play area equipped with a nice assortment of modern play apparatus including a water play area. It would be interesting for fans to get to Atrium Health Ballpark extra early on their game day to do a walking tour and if bringing children spend some time in the play area.

Charleston RiverDogs—Tampa Bay Rays MLB Top 30 Prospects

Similar to the Bowling Green Hot Rods list of Tampa Bay Rays MLB Top 30 Prospect for the DRaysBay post of my game 1, some small changes took place to those on the Charleston RiverDogs roster. The table above lists the nine RiverDogs players that are currently a member of the Tampa Bay’s top 30.

Note that the group now includes four pitchers and five field players. Again, all nine players from that original list moved up one notch. For instance, the RiverDogs top ranked pitcher, right hand starter Cole Wilcox, ranks number 8 up one slot from his earlier #9 rank. Similarly, their highest ranked field player Heriberto Hernandez jumped from #13 to #12.

Four of those top 30 prospect field players were in the Charleston RiverDogs starting lineup for the June 29th game versus the Cannon Ballers. They were Alika Williams playing shortstop and hitting leadoff, Curtis Mead at third base and batting in the number 2 slot, Heriberto Hernandez in left field and hitting third, and Nick Schnell in center and batting seventh.

Heriberto Hernandez connecting with a pitch in the away game at Kannapolis.

Heriberto Hernandez is an International player from the Dominican Republic that was signed as a free agent by the Texas Rangers in December 2017. As shown in the table, he played at both the rookie and short-season A classes of the Rangers Minor League system in 2019. Hernandez was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays in December 2020 and made his debut in the Rays Minor League system on opening day of the 2021 season. That day he was the starting left fielder of the Charleston RiverDogs and batted in the number 4 slot in their lineup.

Hernandez is listed as a catcher on the Charleston RiverDogs roster. However, he has exclusively started games this season in the RiverDogs outfield and occasionally as their designated hitter.

As mentioned in the earlier game 1 post, one former Charleston RiverDogs top 30 prospect was promoted to the High-A class. That was right hand starting pitcher John Doxakis. But, he was replaced by second baseman Curtis Mead, who was recently added to fill a vacancy in the Tampa Rays Top 30 Prospect list. As shown in the table, Mead entered as the Rays new #30 prospect.

Charleston RiverDogs—Team Offense Leaders

This table identifies the leaders of the Charleston RiverDogs offense prior to the start of their series with the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers.

The table lists the player that ranked #1 among all qualifying players on the team in the twelve standard offense statistic categories listed on the RiverDogs official website. A review of the table shows that three members of the top 30 prospect list lead the team or are tied for #1 in one or more of those stats—Heriberto Hernandez (#12), Nick Schnell (#29), and Curtis Mead (#30).

Curtis Mead is an International player from Australia that was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies as a free agent in May of 2018. The table shows that in 2019 he played for one of the Phillies rookie class teams. However, Mead was traded by Philadelphia to the Tampa Bay Rays during the 2019 offseason.

Because of the cancelled 2020 season due to Covid-19, Curtis Mead did not make his debut in the Rays Minor League organization until 2021. On opening day, he was the Charleston RiverDogs starting third baseman and number 3 hitter. He got off to a great start at the plate; quickly moved up in their batting order to the #2 slot; and took over as the leader of Charleston’s offense.

As shown in the table, entering the series in Kannapolis with the Cannon Ballers, Curtis Mead ranked number 1 or was tied for #1 on the RiverDogs team in eight of those twelve standard offense stat categories: runs (29-tied with one other player), hits (56), doubles (19), runs batted in (29), batting average (.348), on-base percentage (.402-tied with one other), slugging percentage (.553), and on-base plus slugging percentage (.955).

Curtis Mead at the plate in the game in Kannapolis.

Game 2 Highlights

One of the Tampa Bay Rays MLB Top 30 Prospects on Charleston’s roster was the RiverDogs starter in the game. That was #14 prospect, right hander Seth Johnson.

It turns out that Johnson, who is 22 year old and playing his second season in the Rays Minor League system, was born in Concord, NC. The downtown center of Concord is located less than eight miles from the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers stadium—Atrium Health Ballpark. Also, he played college baseball at Campbell University in Buies Creek, NC before entering the 2019 draft. Johnson was a first round selection of the Rays in that draft.

The game against Kannapolis was his fifth start of the season for the RiverDogs, but he had also made five relief appearances. Kannapolis’ starting pitcher, right hander Jesus Valles, had also made both starts and relief appearance this season. That was his third start in eight pitching appearances for the Cotton Ballers.

The Kannapolis Cotton Ballers got on the scoreboard quick. In the bottom of the first, they scored 2 runs. Their leadoff hitter Jose Rodriguez doubled and crossed the plate with run 1 on a single by #2 batter Samil Polonco. Next, number 3 hitter Bryan Romos doubled to put runners on second and third. Finally, Cotton Ballers cleanup hitter Luis Mieses hit a sacrifice fly that scored Polanco from third with run 2. But then, Johnson settled down, shut down the rally, and pitched scoreless 2nd, 3rd, and 4th innings.

On the other hand, Kannapolis’ starter Jesus Valles started out strong and pitched scoreless first, second, and third innings. However, in the top of the fourth and fifth innings, he gave up solo runs to Charleston that tied the game at 2 all.

In the fourth, number 3 hitter, Heriberto Hernandez (#12 prospect) hit a leadoff single; advanced to third base on a single by cleanup hitter Diego Infante, and crossed the plate on a 1-6-3 double play. Then, in the fifth, number 8 hitter Johan Lopez walked; moved to third on a single by #9 hitter Jonathan Embry; and scored the game tying run on a sacrifice fly by RiverDogs leadoff batter, #24 prospect Alika Williams.

Alika Williams at the plate in the away game at Kannapolis.

With the game tied 2-all, Seth Johnson returned to the mound for the bottom of the fifth. However, he was greeted with a solo home run by the first batter he faced—Cannon Ballers #7 hitter Chase Krogman. Then, with one out, Johnson gave up singles to Kannapolis’ #9, #1, and # 2 hitters, Victor Torres, Jose Rodriguez, Samil Polanco, and then a double to #3 hitters Bryan Ramos. Torres crossed the plate on Polonco’s single, while Polanco and Rodriguez scored on the Ramos double. That three run rally brought an end to Seth Johnson outing. He was replaced by righty reliever Addison Moss, who shut down the rally. But, Charleston was now down 5-2 entering the top of the six.

For the top of the sixth inning, Kannapolis’ starter, Jesus Valles, was replaced by right hand reliever Sal Biasi. That was a turning point in the game. With the RiverDogs and Cannon Ballers relief corps in charge, the game turned into a slugfest. During the remaining four innings, overall the two teams scored 19 runs on 19 hits, which included 4 home runs and 4 doubles.

In fact, in the top of the 6th, Charleston batted around and scored 8 runs on six hits (2 singles, 3 doubles, and 1 home run), four walks, two stolen bases, and 1 sacrifice fly. Overall, 13 players came to the plate. The key hits were a two RBI single by #5 hitter Brett Wisley, two run homer by #1 batter Alika Williams, and a two run double by #4 hitter Diego Infante. With that rally, the Charleston RiverDogs took a commanding 10 run to 5 lead.

But the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers and Charleston RiverDogs offenses were not yet done. In the top of the 7th inning, the RiverDogs scored two more runs on back to back home runs by #7 and #8 hitters Nick Schnell (#29 prospect) and Johan Lopez to extend their lead to 12-5. But, in the bottom of the seventh, Kannapolis mounted a 4 run rally to close the gap to 12-9. The key hit in that Cannon Ballers rally was a 2-run homer by #5 hitter Harvin Mendoza.

Charleston’s offense struck back with 3 insurance runs in the top of the 8th to expand their lead to 15 runs to 9. In that rally, run 1 scored on an RBI single by Brett Wisley, run 2 on a double by Alexander Ovalles, and the third on a wild pitch with Alika Williams at the plate. In the bottom of the 8th, the Cannon Ballers scored 1 run to make the score 15-10, but in the top of the 9th the RiverDogs match that with their own solo run to make the final score Charleston 16, Kannapolis 10. The RiverDogs first reliever Addison Moss got the win to make his record 2W:0L

Diego Infante singles in the 4th inning to advance Heriberto Hernandez into scoring position.

The Charleston RiverDogs offense leader of the day was number 4 hitter, right fielder Diego Infante. Note from the offense leaders table shows that Infante lead the team in three of the standard offense stats: R (29-tied with Mead), 3B (3), and OBP (.402-tied with Mead).

In the June 29th game, Infante had 4 hits in six official at bats, scored 2 runs, and had two runs batted in. In fact, he doubled in two separate at bats during Charleston’s 8 runs sixth inning rally. On the second of those doubles, he drove in runs 7 and 8 of the inning. The photo shows Infante connecting with a pitch for a single in RiverDogs fourth inning rally.

Tampa Bay Rays #12 prospect Heriberto Hernandez had an interesting day at the plate and played a key role in four of Charleston’s six rallies. Note from the offense leaders table that entering the game he ranked number 1 on the team in base on ball (34). In this game, Hernandez had 2 hits in 3 official at bats, but also reached base twice on walks and once on a hit by pitch. What really stands out is that he led the team by scoring 5 of their 16 runs.

By Walter Triebel author of Road-Tripping the South Atlantic League: A Guide to the Teams, Ballparks and Cities published by McFarland. It’s available for purchase on their website as well as Amazon.