Hoppers refuse to lose

Posted by Andy Durham on September 17, 2011 at 11:47 am under Professional | Comments are off for this article

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

Hoppers refuse to let the season end

SAVANNAH — No one wants to make the last out of any baseball season.

When Noah Perio swung and missed badly on a 1-and-1 pitch with two outs in the top of the ninth inning Friday night, he realized the Grasshoppers were one strike away from packing their equipment, returning to Greensboro and scattering to their homes across the country.

“It went through my mind that I could be the last out,” Perio said. “I didn’t want it to end that way.”

Perio stepped out of the batter’s box, collected himself and stepped in against Savannah left-hander Brandon Sage. Ryan Fisher, who had opened the inning with a single and moved around on two outs, took a short lead off third base. Savannah fans rose and chanted “Sand Gnats! Sand Gnats!” and their players were on their feet, bouncing up and down in the dugout in anticipation. They were so close to the South Atlantic League championship everyone could taste it.

“I knew I didn’t look good on the previous pitch,” Perio said. “I felt he would throw me another curve ball and I edged up in the box. He left it up a little and I trusted my hands and got it past the shortstop.”

Perio’s line drive, just beyond the reach of Wilfredo Tovar, scored Fisher to tie the game 9-9 and breathe new life into the Hoppers. They broke through with three runs in the top of the 11th inning and eventually posted a 12-10 win that tied the best-of-5 series at two games each. It was a game played on an uncharacteristically cool Savannah evening (68 degrees at the start, 63 at the close some four hours and 17 minutes later).

The championship will be decided tonight when the Hoppers, playing their 146th game of the season, meet the Sand Gnats in Grayson Stadium at 6:05 p.m.

“I expect it will be an exciting atmosphere,” said Hoppers catcher J.T. Realmuto. “If we play like it’s another game, do the things we’ve done all year, we should be all right.”

Kyle Winters will draw the starting assignment for Greensboro.

“I haven’t gotten a decent night’s sleep in a week,” Winters said, “but I’ll be anxious, excited and ready to go. You relish this moment. This is what you live for right here.”

To get to this point, the Hoppers called upon an assortment of heroes. Mark Canha’s RBI double put them on the board in the first inning and Marcell Ozuna’s long three-run homer into the tall Georgia pine trees pushed the lead to 5-0 in the top of the second inning. It was exactly the kind of quick start they were after.

Savannah scored twice in the bottom of the third but the Hoppers got those back in the top of the third on an RBI groundout by Perio and a sacrifice fly by Canha.

With a 7-2 lead, the Hoppers looked like they might cruise home. But a nightmare of an inning in the bottom of the fourth turned things around. The first seven Savannah batters reached base and scored, with Darrell Ceciliani’s bases-loaded triple the big blow. Suddenly the Sand Gnats were in control 9-7.

“We were down,” Perio said, “but coming off the field Christian Yelich said it wasn’t going to end like this.”

Yelich said the Hoppers were determined not to let the big inning deflate them.

“I said it,” he said, “but everybody was thinking it, all 25 guys. We were going down fighting.”

They got a run back in the fifth on Danny Black’s RBI single. From there, the game settled down and stayed at 9-8. Greensboro relief pitcher Alex Caldera put zeroes on the scoreboard for the next three innings and Michael Brady put up another in the eighth.

That set up the top of the ninth and Perio’s clutch hit to tie the game. Brady struck out the side in the bottom of the ninth to keep the game tied. Manager Andy Haines called on Brady to go back out for the 10th, his third inning of work. As the Hoppers’ closer, used to one or two innings, it was asking a lot.

“His pitch count was low, so he was fine to go back out,” Haines said. “By pitching two innings, he was already done for (Saturday’s) game so we pushed him as much as we can.”

Brady got a strikeout to start the 10th, then gave up a broken-bat single to Joe Bonfe and wild-pitched him to second base. The Sand Gnats’ dugout and fans became active again. Brady got Dustin Lawley to fly to center and intentionally walked the dangerous Aderlin Rodriguez. Luis Nieves grounded out to end the threat.

“I just tried to take it one pitch at a time,” Brady said. “Keep them off balance, keep the ball down and not give them any walks. I wanted to keep my mind off the fact that if they score, they win.

“The first two innings I just challenged them with my fastball. I tried not to overthrow and keep it in the right spot. In my third inning I took it easy on my warmup pitches. I used my slider more (against the hitters).”

Realmuto said Brady threw “the same way he’s been throwing all year. He pounded the fastball wherever he wanted and went to the slider to keep them off balance. He didn’t give them anything too good to hit.”

Realmuto got the decisive rally going in the 11th with a leadoff triple that he bashed off the scoreboard in center field. Fisher delivered an RBI single and moved to second on Black’s sacrifice. Isaac Galloway singled and Fisher stopped at third. Perio drove in his fourth run of the game with a groundout and then three straight walks, the last to Canha, forced in another run to make it 12-9.

Brett Zawacki came on to nail things down but walked the leadoff hitter. He got a big out when he fanned Ceciliani, but was touched for an RBI double by Tovar. He regrouped and got two straight groundouts to Perio to end the game.

“I wanted to go out and throw strikes and obviously that didn’t work,” Zawacki said of walking the leadoff hitter. “Those extra two runs helped. I felt good when Perio got that second groundout to first base.”

Who knows how much these teams have left for the deciding game? The first game of the series was won by the Hoppers in the bottom of the ninth and the second by Savannah although the Hoppers had the tying run at the plate with the bases loaded in the ninth. The teams split two 11-inning nail-biters in Grayson Stadium.

“When J.T. led off the 11th with that triple, we felt like something good was going to happen,” Haines said. “Him getting to third base was huge and Fisher had a good approach (on his RBI single).

“I’ve said it all along, playoff baseball is not over until the last pitch of the last game. Our guys will not give in. We’ve worked so hard for this opportunity. We’ve done it together and we might as well do it one more time.”

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