Hass on Hoppers as they head to Hickory

Posted by Andy Durham on September 9, 2011 at 11:56 am under Professional | Comments are off for this article

from Bill Hass, with the Bill on Baseball Blog, at www.gsohoppers.com:

Hoppers riding a magical wave

The Hoppers’ locker room Wednesday was unlike any I’ve ever been in — and I’ve been in more than I can count for more years than I care to disclose.

One player exhaled deeply, shook his head and smiled, almost in disbelief.

“We sure make it fun,” another said.

“You’re giving people heart attacks,” I suggested.

“We’re giving ourselves heart attacks,” he replied with a grin.

The players are enjoying this improbable wave, riding it for all it’s worth. The 15-inning, 5-4 win over Hickory in the first game of their playoff series was just the latest in a string of memorable victories.

“What can you say after something like that?” said Christian Yelich after swatting a two-run home run to win it. “We never quit, never give up. We play to the last out. This has been a magical season.”

Yelich, who survived a bucket of ice dumped on his head and a pie tin full of shaving cream shoved in his face, called it “the craziest game I’ve ever played in” because the Hoppers had to come from behind four times, including three times in extra innings.

The Hoppers managed only nine hits, spread among three players. Marcell Ozuna had four of them, including a home run to tie the game and a broken-bat single to tie it again. Yelich had two, including a game-tying double in addition to the game-winning home run. And J.T. Realmuto had the other three.

But, as has been the case in most of the Hoppers’ wins late in the season, all three phases of the game had to click. The six pitchers battled out of trouble all night, givng up 13 hits and five walks. But they somehow limited the damage to one run at a time, stranding 13 Crawdad baserunners.

Starter Rett Varner was in big trouble in the fifth inning, with one run in, no outs and the bases loaded. He got a popup and a double play to end the inning. Brett Zawacki was the most impressive Hoppers pitcher of the night, throwing two perfect innings and striking out four. Grant Dayton, Michael Brady, Jordan Conley and Mike Ojala combined to extract themselves out of several sticky situations.

The defense chipped in with some crucial plays. Realmuto cut down a runner trying to steal third with a laser throw to Ryan Fisher to end the top of the ninth. Noah Perio made a couple of nice stops and throws. And, in the top of the 14th, Fisher short-hopped a hard-hit ball that seemed headed for the hole, fired to Perio at second for one out and watched Perio spin and get enough on the throw to nip the runner at first base.

Manager Andy Haines said this game really didn’t feel that much different than others lately “because we’ve been in a playoff mode for so long. Kannapolis (where they had to win four out of five) was our playoffs.”

There is more work to be done, of course. Although the team that wins Game 1 of a 3-game series has the advantage, it can all be lost if the Hoppers lose Game 2 Friday at Hickory and have to play Game 3 Saturday on the road.

“There’s one thing about playoff baseball,” Haines said. “It’s not over until the last pitch of the last game.”

Apparently the Hoppers won’t have it any other way.

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