from Bill Hass, with his Bill on Baseball Blog at www.gsohoppers.com:
Hoppers ready for Santana and a best-of-3
There weren’t any long faces in the Hoppers’ locker room Tuesday night.
Yes, the team had just suffered a 7-3 loss to the Savannah Sand Gnats in a game that tied the best-of-5 SAL championship series at one game apiece. After a travel day Wednesday, the series will be settled in Savannah with Game 3 Thursday, Game 4 Friday and, if needed, a final game Saturday.
Tuesday’s loss snapped an 8-game winning streak in NewBridge Bank Park in the team’s final appearance there. The Hoppers have still won 14 of their last 16, including five of their last six on the road (four of five in Kannapolis to get in the playoffs plus a playoff win over Hickory).
Any notion that the loss may have robbed the Hoppers of some confidence was quickly quashed.
“This was a fluke tonight,” said shortstop Danny Black. “They still have to beat us two more times, which we know is not going to happen.”
The Sand Gnats won because they took advantage of some scoring opportunities early and tacked on a couple of home runs late. Five shutout innings of relief by Yohan Almonte kept the Hoppers’ offense in check as Savannah built a 7-2 lead.
The Hoppers scored a run in the ninth and had the bases loaded with two outs. The crowd was on its feet, clapping and hollering, trying to will the team to perform another miracle. This time there was none. Wilfredo Gimenez, who had three hits on the night, struck out to end the game.
“We seem to have a switch that we turn on in the eighth and ninth innings,” said third baseman Ryan Fisher. “That’s not a bad thing, but it would be nice to score a few more runs early. But we’re confident and one loss doesn’t change anything.”
James Leverton, who pitched the series clincher at Hickory, will take the mound for the Hoppers Thursday. The Sand Gnats will counter with Johan Santana, the major league ace making his second appearance for them as he recovers from reconstructive elbow surgery. Under major league rules, he can parachute in and make a rehab start, even in the middle of the playoffs.
“I don’t think we care who’s out there,” said Hoppers’ left fielder Christian Yelich. “We’ll just go down there and battle Santana. No one said winning a championship would be easy.
“Now it’s a best-of-3. Our confidence isn’t shaken. We’ve bounced back all year, so why should this be any different?”
Grayson Stadium is one of the oldest parks in the league with much larger outfield dimensions than the Hoppers’ home. But the team won three of four there in July without Yelich, who got sick and had to miss every game.
“It’s a pitcher’s park and the ball doesn’t fly there,” Fisher said. “Our pitchers will have to bring it and the hitters will have to grind it out and put up a few runs.”
It will also be hotter and muggier than Greensboro weather recently. Temperatures Thursday are expected to be in the low 90s.
Manager Andy Haines said he expects Santana to pitch up to four innings and be followed by right-hander Taylor Whitenton.
“We’ll talk about Santana before the game,” Haines said, “and try to have some fun with it. We’re not the ones with anything to lose.”
He added that the the team needs to execute and not let the bigger park dictate the game. Fly balls that would leave the home park may not go out at Grayson, but hitters need to keep the same approach.
At the end of Tuesday’s game, the Hoppers chalked it up to part of the game.
“That’s baseball,” Haines said. “Some nights it just doesn’t happen. I’m a confident person, but our expectation wasn’t to sweep a five-game series. We’ll regroup on the off day, then go down there and battle them.”