By ZACH BIRDSONG
In front of a home crowd on Monday night, Lynchburg Hillcats starting pitcher Justus Sheffield delivered a solid outing, tossing six innings and allowing just three runs, on eight hits, while striking out six Wilmington Blue Rocks batters.
With his team down 3-0, the Tullahoma native watched the bottom of the sixth inning from the dugout as his team attempted a late rally. Taylor Murphy got the Hillcats on the board after lining a solo shot down the right-field line to start the inning.
Anthony Santandler followed with a base knock to right field before Bobby Bradley drew a walk of his own. Neither runner was able to cross the plate though as the final three batters were downed in order, trailing 3-1 heading to the seventh.
After the Hillcats batted, Sheffield headed to the locker room, got changed and watched the remainder of the contest from the sidelines. Lynchburg added a run, but Wilmington plated three more scores, to secure the 6-2 victory, as Sheffield was tacked for the loss on the hill.
“There were some positives out there, obviously there are some things that could have went better or went my way, but that’s the game. You can’t go out there and be perfect every time,” Sheffield said on Monday night. “I can look back on this outing and take the positives away from it, move on and get better. I just went out there and competed and gave it my all and tried to give my team a chance to win.”
Sheffield allowed a single in every inning, but was able to avoid giving up a big inning, as Wilmington plated a run in each the second, fourth and fifth. While he took the loss on Monday, Sheffield focused on the positives and saw plenty of them from his performance.
“I was getting ahead in the count early in. When I started losing them a bit, I started relying on my changeup a lot, which has come a long way from the beginning of the season,” he said. “My off-speed pitch was working really well and I made the pitches when the runners were on to get them out and minimize the damage.”
Sheffield, a 2014 Tullahoma High School graduate, was first-round draft pick of the Cleveland Indians out of high school. In his second pro season, the left-handed hurler is a member of the Hillcats, the Virginia-based Class-A Advanced Affiliate of the Indians.
In 19 starts this season, Sheffield has put together a 7-5 record, with a 3.59 ERA in his 95.1 innings pitched. With 93 strikeouts on the year, Sheffield leads his team in the category, just ahead of Mitch Brown, who has 92.
During the first half of the season, Sheffield compiled a 4-4 record with a 4.08 ERA and was one of six Hillcats selected to participate in the Carolina League-California League All-Star Contest in Lake Elsinore, California. Sheffield tossed the bottom of the sixth on June 21, allowing a hit and walk, but got out of the inning unscathed.
Sheffield allowed a leadoff single to start the inning, but teammate and catcher Daniel Salters tossed out the runner attempting to swipe second base. Salters again helped out his pitcher, after Sheffield allowed a one-out walk, gunning down the runner attempting to steal second.
One day earlier, Sheffield attended the Midway Classic Home Run Derby, where two of his teammates, Bradley and Yu-Cheng Chang, competed aboard the USS Midway aircraft carrier in San Diego. Cheng hit three home runs in the first round, but came up short of advancing. Bradley hit six home runs in 10 swings to advance to the semifinals, where he eventually lost by one home run.
In his first two full seasons as a professional ballplayer, Sheffield has been selected as an all-star. According to him, it never gets old and he embraces the honor each time he gets selected to those squads.
“It was unreal. We got to walk around Petco Park [in San Diego], which was cool. They gave us a tour and then we had the home run derby on the USS Midway,” Sheffield said. “That was crazy, getting up there with free food and watching your teammates blast bombs in the water, it was a pretty cool experience.
“Then during the game, getting out there and meeting new guys was big for me,” he added. “Then just going out there and competing against the California League, you don’t know too much about them except for the guys you might have played last year in the Midwest Game. It was good to meet new people and meet new faces.”
Since coming back from the All-Star break, Sheffield has put together a 3-1 record in six starts with an ERA of 2.60. After getting back from California, the lefty has struck out 40 batters, including a season-high 10-strikeout performance in a win over the Carolina Mudcats on July 2.
With a 45-25 record during the first half of the season, the Hillcats captured the Carolina League Northern Division Title for the first time since 2012, the last time the team won the league championship. This also marked the fifth-straight season that Lynchburg has clinched a playoff spot.
Although his team has already guaranteed itself a postseason, Sheffield said he isn’t going to rest on that and continues to strive to get better. After each start, he wants to continue to learn and grow as a player and he has set some goals for the remainder of the year.
“Just keep working and coming out here and getting deep in the innings,” Sheffield said. “One of my main focuses is getting through six innings every time that I go out and just keep competing. There are still minor adjustments that need to be made and then sometimes things just click. That’s just how baseball is and you just have to keep working on it on a daily basis. You aren’t always going great out there and baseball shows that.”
Sheffield is scheduled to start on Sunday as the Hillcats travel to take on the Winston-Salem Dash. Start time is scheduled for 4 p.m. Central Time.
For additional information about the Lynchburg Hillcats, stats and to keep up with games live, visit Lynchburg-Hillcats.com.