Greensboro Grasshoppers ready to Reach for the Ring

Posted by Andy Durham on September 12, 2011 at 10:15 am under Professional | Comments are off for this article

from Bill Hass, with Bill on Baseball at

Friday night in Hickory, as an almost-full moon lit up the inky night sky, the Greensboro Grasshoppers celebrated.

Bottles of champagne were cracked open. The players doused themselves, the coaches and team president Donald Moore in jubilation after their 2-0 win over the Crawdads that delivered the SAL’s Northern Division playoff championship.

Everyone watched the season-ending fireworks show for a few minutes, then went back in the clubhouse, where the revelry continued. Eventually, manager Andy Haines came in and talked for a moment about how “this is our time.”

Finally, a voice somewhere in the room said: “It ain’t over, boys. It ain’t over.”

And it’s not. The Hoppers have had a couple of days to let that feeling subside, at least a little bit. They have turned their attention to the best-of-5 championship series against Savannah, which will begin with Games 1 and 2 in NewBridge Bank Park on Monday and Tuesday.

“That high has worn off a little,” catcher J.T. Realmuto said Sunday before the Hoppers went through an afternoon workout. “Now we’ve got to get back to work.”

Championships are nothing new for Realmuto. His high school team won two state baseball titles in Oklahoma and his American Legion team won another last summer. But this one is different.

“They were not quite to this level,” he said. “The competition here is way better.”

This has been a satisfying season for Kyle Winters, who will pitch the opener Monday. In 2009 he was with the Double-A Jacksonville Suns, who won the Southern League title, but he had hurt his shoulder during the season and wasn’t with the team when they won it all.

“I have a ring from that,” he said, “but this one would mean so much more.”

Surgery kept Winters out of the 2010 season and he was sent to the Hoppers in order to be part of the regular rotation. While disappointed that he was back at the Low A level, he was also glad to be in Greensboro, where fan support is so good. Winters missed two months this summer when he strained his shoulder, but he remained with the team throughout.

“It was huge to be a part of the team,” he said. “I’ve been there through the good and the bad times.”

Now he feels strong and believes his pitching is coming together at the right time. While Winters doesn’t want to over-hype the importance of the first game, he understands it could be the last time he’s on the mound this season.

“I haven’t seen their hitters,” he said, “but they haven’t seen me and what I bring to the table. This is a game where you don’t want to hold anything back.”

Robert Morey will pitch Tuesday and James Leverton, who was outstanding with seven shutout innings at Hickory, will pitch Thursday in Savannah. If Game 4 is needed, Rett Varner will get that start. Should the series go the distance to Game 5, there are several candidates to start.

The Hoppers played the Sand Gnats eight times, all in July. They won five of the games, taking three of four on the road and splitting four games at home.

“They’re real scrappy with solid pitching and fundamentally sound defense,” Realmuto recalled.

A possible extra ingredient could be the appearance of Johan Santana — yes, that Johan Santana — for the Sand Gnats. The Mets’ ace, coming back from Tommy John surgery, pitched Friday against Augusta on a rehab assignment. He went three innings and allowed one unearned run, and said later he would be open to pitching in the championship series. He would likely be limited to three innings again if he does pitch.

Realmuto, who hit a home run off of Stephen Strasburg earlier this summer, doesn’t care if Santana pitches or not.

“We’re real confident right now,” he said, “and if we take care of our business, we’ll be fine.”

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