Hass says, Hoppers back in a familiar position

Posted by Andy Durham on September 16, 2011 at 2:38 pm under Professional | Comments are off for this article

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

Hoppers back in a familiar position

SAVANNAH, Ga. — The Hoppers have been here before — backs against the wall, no margin for error.

Their 4-3 loss to the Savannah Sand Gnats in 11 innings Thursday night put them down two games to one of the best-of-5 series to determine the SAL championship.

Game 4 will be played at Grayson Stadium (or, as it is referred to in signage around the park “Historic Grayson Stadium”) Friday at 7:05 pm. If Savannah wins, it earns the title. If the Hoppers win, they force Game 5 Saturday at 6:05.

“They’re here for a reason,” shortstop Danny Black said of the Sand Gnats, “and we are, too. That’s why they give us five games to settle it.”

The Hoppers entered the series full of confidence and thinking of a sweep when they won the first game in dramatic fashion, 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth inning in Greensboro. Realistically, of course, they were prepared for a down-to-the-wire battle and that’s what they face now after losing the last two games.

“This game is already forgotten,” said Ryan Fisher. “We have to come back and put it all on the line now.”

Manager Andy Haines understands that his club is in dire straits, but he has seen them come through before. They had to win their final two games at Kannapolis to make the playoffs.

“If I’m in (Savannah’s) shoes, I’m by no means comfortable,” he said. “We can force a sudden death game. If we come out and play well (Friday), things can change in a hurry.”

The Hoppers didn’t play particularly well Thursday, but they stayed in the game. James Leverton wasn’t nearly as sharp as he was when he shut down Hickory in the Northern Division final. But he battled through six innings and allowed only two runs.

Grant Dayton gave up a run in the seventh and, running on fumes, got out of a bases-loaded mess in the eighth. Michael Brady pitched a 1-2-3 ninth and Jordan Conley did the same in the 10th. In the 11th, though, Hoppers nemesis Darrell Ceciliani drew a one-out walk to reach base for the fifth time (three singles, two walks). He went to third on a flare single to center by Wilfredo Tovar.

Rafael Fernanez, whose double had tied it 3-3 in the eighth, drew an intentional walk. Conley coaxed Blake Forsythe into fouling out, but Joe Bonfe dropped a hit into right field, his third of the game, to score Cecliani.

“They’ve got some guys who are wearing us out,” Haines said. “Ceciliani tore up Augusta (in the Southern Division playoffs), so he came in hot.”

Offensively, the Hoppers didn’t have to face Johan Santana after all. The two-time Cy Young winner had been the possible starter for the Sand Gnats, but the parent New York Mets said they didn’t think another rehab start would help his recovery from Tommy John surgery, so they shut him down the rest of the season.

So Savannah started Taylor Whitenton, who led the SAL with a 2.49 ERA. Batters hit just .193 against him, the lowest of any starter in the league. Whitenton struck out eight in 6 2/3 innings and allowed just five hits but four went for extra bases. Fisher had a triple and a double and J.T. Realmuto and James Wooster added doubles.

Whitenton was at his toughest in the top of the fifth. Wooster doubled inside the first-base bag and Realmuto followed with a double to center, reaching third base on Ceciliani’s error. But then he fanned Fisher, Black and Isaac Galloway to end the inning and strand Realmuto at third.

Another opportunity was wasted in the eighth after Noah Perio got a one-out bunt single and went to third on Marcell Ozuna’s single. But Christian Yelich’s best swing of the night produced a line drive right at Savannah shortstop Tovar and Mark Canha grounded out.

“I give Savannah’s pitchers credit,” Haines said, “but at the same time maybe we should be better. Whitenton made some good pitches (with a runner on third and no outs) but we have to put the ball in play there. (With Perio on third) Yelich just hits the ball in the wrong spot.”

Perhaps the Hoppers are due for an offensive breakout with Rett Varner on the mound for Game 4. Perio, Ozuna, Yelich, Canha, Realmuto and Galloway were a combined 4-for-28 Thursday.

The Hoppers really are in a one-game-at-a-time mode now. Win Friday and they get a chance to play Saturday.

“If anybody can do it,” Haines said, pointing to where the players were dressing, “we’ve got the group to do it. If we force Game 5, I like our chances.”

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