Bill Hass on Greensboro’s South Atlantic League Baseball Title:”A perfect ending for the Hoppers”

Posted by Andy Durham on September 18, 2011 at 3:06 pm under Professional | Comments are off for this article

from Bill Hass, with the Bill on Baseball Blog, at

A perfect ending for the Hoppers

SAVANNAH — As Savannah hitter Wilfredo Tovar swung and missed at the last pitch of the 2011 South Atlantic League championship series Saturday night and the ball settled in the mitt of Hoppers catcher J.T. Realmuto, it took a moment to register on pitcher Grant Dayton.

A moment later, he was engulfed in a swarm of orange jerseys as the Hoppers poured out of the dugout and from all points on the field and converged into a happy pile on the mound at Grayson Stadium. Dayton and the Hoppers had just finished off a 7-3 victory to beat the Sand Gnats in the deciding game of the best-of-5 series, bringing Greensboro its first baseball championship since 1982.

“I heard everyone on the bench going crazy and I saw J.T. jumping up and down and I knew it was over,” Dayton said. “And then I was pretty close to the bottom of the dogpile. Words can’t describe how exciting this is. It’s my first championship in anything, ever.”

This game capped an improbable run to the title. The Hoppers had to win 11 of their final 12 games in the regular season just to make the playoffs. They polished off Hickory in two straight games to win the Northern Division and took the first game against Savannah. But they lost the second and the third games and were down to their last strike in Game 4 before pulling that one out in 11 innings.

“I told you we would not watch them (Savannah) celebrate,” said Christian Yelich, who indeed made that statement, in more graphic terms, after the Hoppers lost Game 3 in 11 innings. “It’s incredible. This is what we set out to do from Day One in spring training.”

Many of the players said it was hard to put their feelings into words.

“I felt relieved, excited and happy, all at the same time,” said Noah Perio, who had four hits, an RBI and a run scored in the championship game and delivered the two-out, two-strike single that drove in the tying run run in Game 4. “I’m just proud of the way we never gave up during the season, never gave up on each other.”

Even manager Andy Haines struggled to find the right words.

“It’s pretty hard to describe,” he said. “It hasn’t sunk in yet. This is so hard to accomplish. The fact that it has been 29 years (since Greensboro’s last title) tells you how hard and makes you cherish it. The players persevered and I’m just so happy for them.”

One who cherished it in particular was starting pitcher Kyle Winters, who pitched for the Hoppers in 2007 and moved up the Florida Marlins’ ladder, only to see his career sidetracked by shoulder surgery. He missed part of 2009 and all of 2010 and was disappointed to be sent back to low Class A baseball this year. He missed two months of this season with a strained shoulder, but all that was forgotten when he took the mound Saturday.

Winters pitched 6 2/3 innings, holding Savannah to two runs and winding up as the winning pitcher. Mike Ojala was outstanding in 1 1/3 innings of relief, retiring four straight batters after the first one he faced reached base on an error. Dayton closed it out with three strikeouts.

“This feels outstanding,” Winters said as he puffed on a victory cigar. “It was so much fun. I can’t imagine anything any better. It was a total team effort tonight, just like it has been the entire season.”

The final score was deceiving. The Hoppers, being who they were all season, got through some dramatic moments.

As Greensboro was stranding five runners in the first three innings, Savannah broke through with a pair of runs in the bottom of the third.

“Down 2-0, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Yelich said. “It’s unbelievable. We never gave up. That wasn’t in our vocabulary.”

The top of the fourth inning started innocently enough with two quick outs. Then Danny Black singled off Sand Gnats starter Angel Cuan.

“On this team, anybody can produce at any time,” Black said. “I just wanted to get on base and let the rest of the team do the work.”

And they did. Isaac Galloway ripped a triple to score Black and came in to score on Perio’s single. Marcell Ozuna cracked a double to score Perio and make it 3-0. Yelich grounded to shortstop Tovar, who booted the ball for one error and then, as Ozuna rounded third and steamed home, threw the ball away for a second error. Mark Canha delivered a single to score Yelich from second to finish the five-run inning, all with two outs.

“I had struck out my first at-bat on a fastball,” Galloway said. “I thought he might give it to me again and he did on the first pitch and I got a good swing on it.”

No one felt the lead was safe because Savannah had wiped out a 7-2 deficit Friday with a seven-run inning. So the Hoppers added two more runs in the top of the fifth. A single by Wilfredo Gimenez, a fielder’s choice and singles by Galloway and Perio loaded the bases, again with two outs. Ozuna smacked a single to right to score two more runs and make it 7-2.

In the bottom of the fifth, Winters found himself in a mess with the bases loaded and one out. Savannah seemed poised to get back in the game. But Winters got the red-hot Darrell Ceciliani to fly out to Yelich in left field, short enough that a run couldn’t score. Tovar then popped out to Canha to end the inning.

“I think that gave us a huge morale boost and carried us the rest of the way,” Winters said. “I just had to settle myself down and correct some mechanics.”

Realmuto said that on those last two hitters, Winters “got his fastball down, worked ahead in the count and put his pitches where he wanted to.”

After getting the first two outs in the seventh, Winters gave up a triple and a walk. Ojala came on and got Tovar to hit a grounder to third, but Ryan Fisher didn’t feel the ball cleanly and a run scored to cut it to 4-3. Ojala shook that off and prevented further damage by striking out Rafael Fernandez.

The Hoppers got a hit in the eighth and ninth innings but no further runs. Ojala retired the side in order in the eighth and Dayton took over in the bottom of the ninth with the title on the line.

Right away more drama came into play, showing just how hard it is to nail down a championship. Blake Forsythe reached safely on a throwing error by Black at shortstop and Juan Gamboa singled, sending Forsythe to third. Runners at the corners with no out out.

“I knew we had a good lead and all it would take was three outs,” Dayton said. “I also realized how hard those three outs can be and I still had to pitch and get my mind right.”

Dayton struck out Alonzo Harris and then fired a third strike past Ceciliani, who amazingly took the pitch without swinging. Dayton got two strikes on the pesky Tovar, then threw him an unexpected pitch.

“It was a back-foot slider,” Dayton said. “It’s a pitch that comes inside and looks like a fastball but drops out of the strike zone. J.T. called for it and I knew if I was going to get beat it would be with that pitch.”

Tovar swung over it for strike three and the Hoppers’ celebration ensued.

“It was a perfect ending,” Yelich said.

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