Sweep puts Hoppers in thick of pennant race
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball at www.gsohopper.com
Thursday’s doubleheader against Hagerstown amounted to a “must sweep” situation for the Hoppers.
So that’s exactly what they did. They followed a dramatic 5–4 win in extra innings in the first game with a 7–3 victory in the second one.
The sweep put the Hoppers in the thick of the four-team race for the first-half pennant in the SAL’s Northern Division. Hagerstown leads with a 34–25 record, the Hoppers (32–26) and Lakewood (33–27) are tied for second, both 1 1/2 games behind, and Kannapolis (31–26) is fourth, two games back.
Technically, Greensboro is in second on a percentage basis, .552 to Lakewood’s .550.
“It’s tough to win both games of a doubleheader,” said first baseman Colby Lusignan. “This puts us in good position for the stretch.”
There are 10 games remaining for the Hoppers?—?a four-game series at West Virginia starting Friday night, then six games at home, three each against Hickory and Delmarva.
After three days off and a game in Burlington that they lost 6–0, the Hoppers had to create some momentum upon their return to First National Bank Field. So they did with one of their signature “grind-it-out” victories in the opener.
Down 3–1 going into the bottom of the sixth, they got a home run from James Nelson that brought them within one run. In the seventh, which is supposed to be the final inning in a doubleheader game, Nelson’s single drove in Luis Pintor to tie things.
The Hoppers had some tough luck in the top of the ninth when the Suns patched together a walk, a sacrifice and a bad-hop single over Nelson’s glove at third base to take a 4–3 lead.
“We could have given up there,” said manager Todd Pratt, “but we kept our nose to the grindstone. This team doesn’t succumb to down time.”
After the first two Hoppers were retired in the bottom of the ninth, things looked dire. But Dalton Wheat singled and Nelson followed with an infield single that send Wheat to third base.
“I took a chance there,” Pratt said of his decision to wave Wheat to third. “It was a real close play at third base and it could have been game over, but it all worked out.”
The gamble paid off when a passed ball brought in Wheat to tie the game and sent Nelson to second. Lusignan followed with a single to center field and Pratt waved Nelson around third. The throw home was off-line and Nelson slid in with the winning run.
“With two outs, we’re supposed to try to score from second base on any base hit,” Nelson said. “We’re coached to get all our momentum going around third base.”
For his part, Lusignan was looking for a pitch he could get his bat on to drive in the run.
“I know Nelson has pretty good wheels,” Lusignan said. “When I got to first base, I was just hanging out and watching him come in to score.”
Nelson had three hits, two RBIs and two runs scored as he extended his hitting streak to 22 games. He’s aware of the streak, but not obsessed by it.
“Honestly, I’m just thinking ‘see the ball, hit the ball,’” he explained. “I had seen the pattern they were pitching me, inside with a fastball or curve. On the home run, it was a fastball in and I saw it well.”
The Hoppers used the momentum from that dramatic win to jump on the Suns early in the second game. Walker Olis walked, Lusignan singled and Eric Gutierrez hit a hard line drive to left field for his first homer of the year and a 3–0 lead.
“That was huge,” Pratt said. “It set the tone for the second game and kept the momentum going.”
It was the first of the year for Gutierrez and it came with two strikes.
“The guys who got on base put me in a good position to hit,” he said “The pitcher threw a fastball and I used a two-strike approach, just trying to make contact, and it just happened to be a home run.”
Gutierrez later drove in another run with a single, giving him a four-RBI night and some compensation for getting hit in the head by a pitch in the first game. That came on his second trip up, courtesy of the Suns’ A.J. Bogucki, whose pitch caught him on the left side of the batting helmet. Gutierrez lay on his back for a few seconds, then bounced up and trotted to first base.
“I’ve never been hit in the head before,” he said. “It was noisy because it was close to my ear. I took a deep breath while I was on the ground and tried to treat it like any other hit by pitch. It wasn’t intentional and I tried not to overthink it.”
The Hoppers controlled the second game, which never got closer than three runs. Aaron Knapp and Jarett Rindfleisch picked up RBIs to help keep the Suns at bay.
Then there was Nelson. He went hitless in his first three at-bats and it looked like his streak was over when he grounded out in the fifth inning. But the Hoppers got enough runners on base to bring him up again in the sixth, and he jumped on a pitch for an RBI single to move the streak to 23 games. He finished the night 4-for-8, raising his average to .358.
“When you’re hot, you get some weak hits and some big hits,” Pratt said. “And he’s hot. His home run in the first game gave us some life.”
NOTES: Reliever Chad Smith got the win in the first game on his 22nd birthday … A combination of relievers?—?Michael Mertz, Sam Perez, Reilly Hovis and Marcus Crescentini?—?held the Suns to five hits, three of which were solo homers, in the second game … Hovis was credited with the win … The Hoppers wore green jerseys with gold trim in a throwback look to the days when they were the Greensboro Hornets … It was nothing new to Pratt, who said those were the team colors when he played here in 1986.