The Lexington Legends hit by far the most home runs in the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball this season.
It was fitting then, that Lexington used the long ball Tuesday night to claim its first league championship in the franchise’s first season in the league.
The Legends smashed four home runs in the first four innings at Lexington Legends Ballpark and went on to a 13-2 victory over the Long Island (N.Y.) Ducks to win their best-of-five Atlantic League Championship Series three games to one.
Lexington entered Tuesday night’s game with 205 home runs this season, 45 more than the Gastonia (N.C.) Honey Hunters, who had the next most.
Long Island had no answer for the Legends’ leading home run hitter this season. Courtney Hawkins, a former first-round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox, hit three home runs off three different Ducks pitchers Tuesday night, a solo shot in the first, a three-run bomb in the fourth and another solo homer in the sixth inning, putting his season total at a league-best 35.
— Lexington Legends (@LexingtonLegend) October 20, 2021
Former University of Kentucky standout Ben Aklinski added a three-run homer in the second and former Lexington Catholic star Ben Revere had a solo homer in the fourth to supply some local flair to the Legends’ home run derby. Denis Phipps and Roberto Baldoquin also went deep as the Legends totaled seven home runs on the night.
Legends second baseman Brandon Phillips, who is a co-owner of the team, also got in on the offensive fireworks. Phillips contributed two of Lexington’s 17 hits on the night and drove in a run.
Lexington scored twice in the first and four times in the second to effectively put the game out of reach. The Legends tacked on four more in the fourth and another three in the sixth.
Lexington starting pitcher Zac Westcott allowed two runs on seven hits and struck out seven in seven innings to earn the win.
The championship was the third in a row for the Legends. Lexington won the South Atlantic League in both 2018 and 2019. Last year’s South Atlantic League season was called off because of the pandemic. Before this season, the Legends lost their affiliation with Major League Baseball and moved to the independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. Lexington also won the championship in its first season in the South Atlantic League in 2001.
“This is an incredible way to end what some people viewed as a turbulent time for our industry. We have overcome many obstacles as an organization, yet we have continued to excel on and off the field,” said Andy Shea, president and CEO of the Legends, after the win. “This is our third league championship in the last three seasons, but tonight’s win is most certainly the sweetest. There has never been a team to win the Atlantic League championship in their first year. Lexington just did.”
Among the many roadblocks that came with Lexington moving forward as an independent league franchise this year was having quickly build an entirely new roster from scratch without assistance and personnel from a major league parent club.
The Legends assembled a roster comprised of former major leaguers, longtime minor leaguers and several players with ties to Kentucky, either as high school or college stars.
Pulling this effort together was the signing of former Cincinnati Reds All-Star Phillips on June. 1. The 40-year-old Phillips not only joined the club as a player with star power but became a co-owner of the team — the first rostered player with an ownership stake in his team in Atlantic League history.
“Having a future Hall of Famer on the field, in the clubhouse, and part of the ownership group is great for our entire community and the entire game of baseball,” Shea said at the time. “Brandon’s talent level, passion for the game, and engagement with fans is second to none. This is a great day for baseball, to officially have him back on our field.”
Playing second base, Phillips batted .276 with 14 home runs and 52 RBI in 54 games entering Tuesday night.
“A lot of people that hear independent ball, they assume that they (players) can’t play in the major leagues or they can’t play in the minor leagues. Some of these guys never had the opportunity,” Phillips told the Herald-Leader this summer. “You’re playing the game that you love, and that’s why I’m still playing this game, because I love it.”
Phillips is joined in the Lexington dugout by his brother P.J., the team’s manager.
— Lexington Legends (@LexingtonLegend) October 19, 2021
Aklinski, the former UK standout, batted .290 with 28 home runs and 105 RBI before Tuesday. Along with his team lead in homers, Hawkins had 78 RBI and batted .326. Tillman Pugh led the club in RBI with 107 while batting .322 with 26 home runs.
Longtime Reds pitcher J.J. Hoover went 7-1 on the mound. Former Boston Red Sox first-rounder Henry Owens went 4-5 with a team-best 113 strikeouts. Former University of Louisville star Derek Self went 3-3 with a 3.00 ERA.
“This is the standard for our organization,” Shea said after Lexington defeated Charleston (W.Va.) last week to win the South Division title and advance to the championship series. “The Legends have always prided ourselves on success on and off the field and that’s what we’ve continued to do. It’s always special when you have the chance to win it all.”