Bill Hass on Baseball with Hoppers in the Hunt and will Harper(Hagerstown Suns) move before Hoppers see him again?(Plus the kiss that wouldn’t miss…)

Posted by Andy Durham on June 11, 2011 at 11:01 am under Professional | Comments are off for this article

from Bill Hass at

The palpable excitement of a pennant race fills the air in NewBridge Bank Park.

As the first half of the season draws to a close, the Hoppers are in the hunt behind Hagerstown in the Northern Division, a rare occurrence in recent years. It’s heady stuff and the players are certainly aware of where they stand and what lies ahead of them.

But manager Andy Haines is doing his best to maintain an even-keel approach and not get immersed in the drama.

“There’s excitement,” he said, “but you could see that in spring training. They’re a group who just enjoys playing together and they were excited when they arrived here (for the stat of the season).

“It’s not our job to get caught up in it. That’s for the fans and everyone else. As a manager and a player, you work at staying dialed in and taking care of our business. There’s a prize at the end (of the first half), but we can’t focus on that.”

Part of Haines’ reasoning is there are ten games remaining and a lot of scenarios can unfold. For instance, the race isn’t just between the Hoppers and the Suns. Five teams have a shot at the first-half pennant, with Hickory just 2 1/2 games out of first, Delmarva three and Kannapolis four. Any team that gets hot or goes cold can change the standings dramatically.

And Haines knows how tough it will be. The Hoppers’ 10 remaining games come in a span of 9 days. This home stand has eight games in seven days — three against Kannapolis and then five against West Virginia. There’s a double-header Tuesday night (one game is a makeup from a rained-out game at West Virginia) followed by an afternoon game Wednesday.

“I’ve told the players that it doesn’t get any easier,” he said, “and our mentality has to be to embrace it and do it the hard way.”

The Hoppers finish the first half with four games at Kannapolis. Strangely, they end the half with seven of the 12 games against the Intimidators, a division rival they haven’t seen all season. Hagerstown, by the way, is on the road for three games at Delmarva and four at Lakewood before finishing at home with four more against the Shorebirds. Oddly, being on the road might work in the Suns’ favor — they are a league best 20-9 in away games and just 15-15 at home.

KISS FALLOUT: The Hoppers found themselves in the middle of a firestorm in the second game of the Hagerstown series when the Suns’ Bryce Harper, the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, followed up a home run by blowing a kiss at Greensboro pitcher Zach Neal.

Video of the incident went nationwide. National columnists and talking heads offered their opinions, much of it coming down hard on Harper.

“This thing got so big in a hurry and everyone wanted to know if we were going to hit him (in retaliation),” Haines said. “I think we handled it the right way. I told the players that it’s their mess and they can deal with it. We can’t be the Bryce Harper police. Only (Suns manager) Brian Daubach and the Washington Nationals can do that.”

Oddly, the incident may have worked in the Hoppers’ favor. The Suns had won the first game of the series and Harper’s home run gave them a 1-0 lead that they increased to 2-0 in the second game. A 3-run homer by Wilfredo Gimenez gave the Hoppers a 3-2 lead and it held up, although Harper almost had the last say. In the ninth inning he just missed a game-winning homer when his long drive was caught against the wall in right field by Marcell Ozuna. The Hoppers then won the final game of the series, scoring a lot of runs late for a 13-6 win. And they didn’t throw at Harper during the game.

The Nationals apparently gave no disciplinary measure to Harper. Doug Harris, the director of player development, said the matter was being handled internally and called it “a teaching moment.”

As trite as that sounds, he’s probably right. Harper isn’t the first 18-year-old to do something immature. Remember, he should be in his senior year of high school — he left after his sophomore year, earned a GED and enrolled in a junior college for a year.

Ironically, I wonder if things might have been different had Ryan Zimmerman, the Nats’ star third baseman, been there. Zimmerman played the first game of the series on an injury rehab assignment but left the next day for the Nationals’ high A team in Potomac. Had Zimmerman been on the scene, he might have set the young man straight.

The video shows Harper watching his home run, tossing the bat aside and taking a protracted trot around the bases, with a look or two at Neal. About halfway between third and home, he blew a brief but unmistakable kiss at Neal. After crossing home plate, he turned and looked back at the Hoppers dugout twice.

No one knows exactly what precipitated the gesture. Perhaps it was Harper being hit on the knee in the first game. A story in the Hagerstown Herald-Mail said “some observers” suggested it began when Harper took a called third strike from Neal in the first inning “with Neal sending a kiss in Harper’s direction after the whiff.”

“That’s absolutely false,” Haines said.

So what will happen when the teams meet again, in NewBridge Bank Park, to start the second half of the season? Probably nothing. I expect Harper to be promoted right after the SAL All-Star game. He’s already proven he can handle this league (.342 average, 14 homers, 43 RBIs) and the Nationals will want to see what he can do at High A Potomac or Double-A Harrisburg.

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