Pirates High-A affiliate win first-half division title in South Atlantic League

Little known prospects led the way, too.
Philadelphia Phillies v Pittsburgh Pirates
Philadelphia Phillies v Pittsburgh Pirates / Justin K. Aller/GettyImages

Even in championship seasons there are low points.

For the Greensboro Grasshoppers the low point may have arguably occurred on Sunday June 9 against the then 2nd place Jersey Shore BlueClaws. With first place on the line, the Grasshoppers gave up 7 runs in the top of the first inning on their way to an 18-5 shellacking which moved the BlueClaws into first place and the Grasshoppers into second place ½ game behind. You know it’s bad when, in the final inning of the game, Greensboro chose to send shortstop Maikol Escotto to the mound to save the bullpen. And you really know its bad when your back up shortstop gives up one run in one inning and that turns out to be the best pitching performance of the day for your team.

But all was not lost after that crushing defeat. There were still 9 games left to be played in the first half of the season. If Greensboro could do better in their final nine games than Jersey Shore did in theirs, then they could still win the Division.

And that is what happened. Greensboro won 8 of 9 games, while the BlueClaws won 7 of  their final 10 games and Greensboro was crowned the first half champion of the Northern Division of the South Atlantic League.

But the path to the division title was not without some drama and it still it came down to the last game of the season. Entering the last game of the season, Greensboro was still clinging to a ½-game lead. Both teams had won their games on Tuesday and Wednesday. And so it all rested on the final game of the first half season on Thursday. A win and Greensboro would be the champion. Conversely, a Greensboro loss coupled with a BlueClaws victory would mean the BlueClaws would be the champion.  But Greensboro won and the BlueClaws lost and Greensboro got to hoist the first half Division winning trophy.  Their reward for the first half championship is a spot in the end of the year South Atlantic League playoffs which will begin at the end of the 2nd half of the season. In the playoffs the first half winner plays the second half winner.

Leading up to the final 3 games of the season, Greensboro’s calling card had been its hitting. They led the South Atlantic League in runs scored and home runs.

By contrast, their pitching, which has certainly had its good moments and some outstanding individual performances, had overall collectively not been stellar. The Grasshoppers ranked 8th in runs allowed and 6th in team ERA. It was pitching that had been its downfall the week earlier when they lost four in a row to the BlueClaws.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the division crown. When it was most needed, the starting pitching suddenly became good.  In fact, it became phenomenal. In the final three games of the season, the Greensboro starters pitched 18 innings and allowed 0 runs.

The three pitchers who led the way were: Dominic Perachi, Wilber Dotel and Patrick Reilly.

Reilly is somewhat known to Pirates fans as he is rated the Pirates 20th best prospect by MLB Pipeline. Some may recall that he pitched an inning in the spring breakout game and held the Orioles top prospects scoreless. However, for much of the year he had struggled with control issues. But in his last two starts, when it mattered most, those control issues were kept at bay. On Monday he had his best outing of the year. He pitched six innings. Gave up 0 runs. And struck out 10 Hudson Valley Renegade batters.  He did this while preserving a slim 2 to nothing lead, which proved to be the final score of the game. 

While Reilly appears on most Pirates top prospects lists, Dominic Perachi and Wilber Dotel do not.  Dotel hails from the Dominican Republic. He is 21 years old. He had some success in Bradenton last year pitching to a 7-2 record with a 3.09 E.R.A.  But this year, like Reilly, he struggled with his control, walking 31 batters in 51 innings of work.  His E.R.A. for the season is 5.16. However, on Wednesday, Dotel shut out the Renegades for six innings while striking out 7.  In his start the week earlier, against Winston-Salem, he threw 5.1 innings and gave up only 1 run, while striking out 4. The Grasshoppers also won that game.

And finally there is Dominic Perachi, who was the starting pitcher for Thursday’s championship clinching victory. All that he did was take a no hitter into the sixth inning before surrendering his only hit of the game with one out in the 6th inning. He left the game after 6 innings with Greensboro up 4 to 0.  He had struck out 7 batters and didn’t walk anyone.

Perachi was an 11th round draft choice in the 2022 mlb draft out of Salve Regina College in Rhode Island. He is 23 years old.

Of the 8 games that the Grasshoppers won in their final 9 games, Perachi, Dotel and Reilly pitched in 6 of those games all won by the Grasshoppers.

But, of course,the Grasshoppers did not win the championship with pitching alone.  The bats also showed up in the final 9 games. But like the pitching, the hitters who stole the spotlight were not necessarily household names.

Nick Cimillo, a 16th round draft choice out of Rutgers, hit four homeruns in the final 9 games, including 2 solo shots in the championship clinching game, which proved to be the margin of victory.  Cimillo was drafted as a catcher. And while he is continuing to get time behind the plate, he is primarily being used as a first baseman and a DH. For the season he is batting .314 with a 1.058 OPS.  He not only leads the team in OPS, he leads the entire league.

Shawn Ross, who was toiling in the Pioneer Independent League as a shortstop when the Pirates signed him, has been converted to a starting catcher. He is tied with Cimillo for the team lead in homeruns with 12.  In a 7-1 victory against Winston-Salem last week, Ross provided most of the offense by hitting 3 homeruns in the game. Although batting only .190, he has an OPS of .878.

There are others who have contributed down the stretch. Termarr Johnson, the Pirates #1 hitting prospect, who has spent much of the year hitting below .200, has raised his batting average to .219 during this stretch. He has been a table setter from the top of the lineup. Johnson scored 10 runs in the final 9 games of the First Half.

Charles McAdoo, the Pirates 30th ranked prospect, continued his fine hitting during this stretch.  He is now hitting .336 with a .976 OPS. All he did in the last 9 games was contribute 13 RBI.

Overall, in the final 9 games, the Grasshoppers averaged 7.4 runs per game. That, combined with the aforementioned excellent starting pitching that they received is the reason that they won the 1rst half division title.

Perhaps the game that best personified the Grasshoppers hitting attack occurred in a 14-5 victory against Winston-Salem.  The final score is not indicative of how close this game actually was. The score was tied 5-5 going into the 8th inning. In the 8th inning, a Nick Cimillo homerun put the Grasshoppers up 6 to 5. And then in the 9th inning, with two outs and a runner on second, and the score still 6 to 5, 8 straight Grasshoppers reached base by either a hit, walk, or hit batsman. When Winston Salem finally recorded the final out, 8 runs had crossed the plate—all with two outs—making what had been a close game into a laugher.

So a successful first half of the season is in the books for the Grasshoppers. They are the division champs. But, there is still the 2nd half of a season to be played.

Neal Huntington used to talk about how he wanted players to dominate at their level before rewarding them with a promotion. And if that is the criteria, then one wonders whether some of these players will still be around to see the South Atlantic League playoffs.  Players like Nick Cimillo and Charles McAdoo seem to be dominating the level. A promotion to Altoona seems likely before the season ends.

But in the meantime, they and the rest of the Grasshoppers can bask in their Division championship glory. Well, for at least one day anyway. There is no rest for the weary. This is minor league baseball.  And the 2nd half of the season begins the day after the first half ends. 

And hopefully this incredible performance by the Grasshoppers’ team is a harbinger of good things to come for the Pirates.