Strange finish pushes Hoppers past Hickory
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball(Greensboro Grasshoppers) at www.gsohoppers.com….
Maybe a bizarre ending will be just the spark the Hoppers need.
Mired in a slump that had seen them lose 11 out of 13 games, a stretch in which no breaks seemed to go their way, they got the benefit of an umpire’s call Monday night. With Casey Soltis on third base and Justin Twine at the plate in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth, Hickory relief pitcher Tyler Ferguson was called for a balk. Soltis was waved home with the game-winning run to provide a 4-3 victory.
In other words, a balk-off.
“That’s about as interesting as it gets,” Soltis said of the strange finish.
The outcome broke a four-game losing streak for the Hoppers and lifted them to 27-29 in the second half of the SAL season. They still trail Lakewood by 6 1/2 games in the Northern Division, but now they get a chance to do something about it. They begin a three-game series in Lakewood Tuesday night, followed by three games in Hagerstown, the second-place team.
“This gives us a certain amount of momentum,” Soltis added. “Those are two teams we’ve got to gain ground on.”
And there’s not much time left. Fourteen games remain in the regular season, including four more at Lakewood to end the season. So that’s seven chances against the BlueClaws. There are five teams for the Hoppers to pass in the standings, but at least they control their fate to a certain degree.
“We’ll try to come out with all six wins,” Twine said of the road trip.
Nobody would script a game like this. To begin with, scheduled starting pitcher Cody Poteet had to see a doctor for a non-injury problem. So around lunchtime, Justin Jacome was told he would be making a spot start. The tall left-hander has been a starter most of the season anyhow, and he responded well.
Not that he was on cruise control. Every inning was a grind but Jacome found a way to limit the damage to one run. Pitching coach Brendan Sagara said Jacome’s mental toughness was his biggest asset. Manager Kevin Randel agreed.
“You couldn’t ask anything more of him,” Randel said. “He just knows how to pitch.”
Some terrific defense helped his cause, starting in the first inning. Mason Davis made a diving catch in left field with the bases loaded for the third out.
“I got a pretty good read on it,” Davis said. “I decided I had to go for it. If it drops in front of me it’s two runs. Of course, if it gets by me, it’s probably three runs. I jumped for it and tried to catch it before my body hit the ground. I felt good about my chances.”
In the fourth, shortstop Gio Alfonzo ranged behind second base to spear a grounder and got enough on the one-hop throw to Angel Reyes at first to nip the runner and end the inning.
Davis made another fine catch in the fifth, sprinting into the Hoppers bullpen to haul in a foul ball
to end the inning.
“Everyone was yelling ‘wall, wall’ so I knew I was close to it,” Davis said. “I caught it between the mound and the plate and sort of dropped to one knee to stop my momentum.”
The Hoppers took awhile to get going on offense, with Crawdads starter Emerson Martinez retiring the first 11 batters. But they broke through in the fifth. Aaron Blanton walked, Zach Sullivan got an infield single and Soltis singled in Blanton, with Sullivan moving from first to third. That set up a sacrifice fly by Alfonzo that put the Hoppers on top 2-1.
They added a run in the sixth when Twine doubled, moved to third on Isael Soto’s single and scored on a groundout by Reyes.
That lead stood up behind reliever Kyle Keller, who worked around a leadoff triple in the sixth without allowing a run. In the seventh, he fanned Hickory’s Frandy De La Rosa and catcher John Silviano cut down Eric Jenkins trying to steal on a strike-him-out, throw-him-out double play.
Things took an unexpected turn in the eighth when closer C.J. Robinson gave up two runs that tied the game 3-3. He came back to pitch a shutout ninth inning, backed by a fine double play. Alfonzo ranged to his right to stop a ground ball and threw from his knees to Twine at second for one out. Twine made the pivot and his relay to first got the batter.
“As soon as the ball came off the bat, I knew I was going to second,” Alfonzo said. “I trust Twine to give us a chance for the double play.”
All that set up the strange finish. Soltis got it started with a one-out single and moved to second on a passed ball. Alfonzo grounded out on an excellent play by Hickory shortstop Yeyson Yrizarri, throwing from his knees. But that enabled Soltis to move to third, a crucial development.
That brought up Davis, a switch-hitter, and the Crawdads elected to give him an intentional walk by left-hander Adam Choplick. Then they brought in right-hander Ferguson to face Twine, a right-handed hitter. Davis took second base on catcher’s indifference, but his run was irrelevant as the Crawdads concentrated on Twine.
As Ferguson started his windup, base umpire Matt Carlyon held up both hands to signal a balk and waved Soltis home, triggering a Hoppers celebration as if someone had hit a grand slam.
And the odd thing was, no one quite knew what happened.
“I was more focused on not getting picked off,” Soltis said. “I didn’t know until the umpire called it.”
Twine’s focus was on the at-bat.
“I couldn’t tell,” he said. “It’s one of the strangest endings I’ve ever been a part of, but we’ll take anything we can get.”
Sagara said he was looking down and missed the call. Randel didn’t see it, either.
“Twine must have looked mean in the (batter’s) box,” Randel said.
The explanation that seemed most likely was a “start and stop.” Ferguson started his windup, stopped and then started again, drawing the balk call.
“Maybe this will open up the floodgates,” Randel said. “We just have to play good ball (on the road) and take care of business.”