Hoppers one of 4 teams bunched in pennant race
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball at www.gsohoppers.com
This is why you play baseball- a chance to go to the postseason.
That’s the situation the Hoppers are in with three games remaining in the first half of the South Atlantic League season. It’s a bizarre four-team race for the first-half pennant in the Northern Division.
After Thursday’s games, which included Greensboro’s 8–3 win over Hickory, the Hoppers are in a three-way tie for second place, one game behind Kannapolis.
“We know as a unit what we want to accomplish, and that’s to win out,” said center fielder Corey Bird. “It’s fun to be really playing for something with a chance to win a (first-half) championship.”
Pitcher Dustin Beggs, who picked up his fifth win with a six-inning stint, put it this way: “It’s a blast. All the guys are fired up coming out to the ballpark.”
Kannapolis, which swept Hagerstown for the second straight night, is in control. If the Intimidators sweep their three-game series at home against West Virginia, they’re the first-half champions.
But if they falter, that opens the door for any or all of the other three teams. In the final series of the half, the Hoppers will play at home against Delmarva, Hagerstown goes on the road to Lexington and Lakewood hosts Hickory.
One thing that can work in Greensboro’s favor is winning percentage. Because of rainouts, the Hoppers have played two fewer games than Hagerstown and Lakewood. Their percentage is .554 to .552 for the Suns and BlueClaws. Since standings are based on percentage, the Hoppers would have the tiebreaker if they end in a first-place tie with either or both of those teams.
“It’s crazy,” manager Todd Pratt said of the first-half scenario. “We’ve told the players, ‘win tomorrow, win one game.’ Playoff baseball is great for these kids. No matter what the results, it has been a great half for the Hoppers.”
To get to this point, the Hoppers had to bounce back from a doubleheader loss to the Crawdads on Wednesday in which they scored just three runs. They got off to a good start Thursday by manufacturing a run in the first inning.
Bird punched a well-placed double down the left-field line. Mason Davis smashed a drive to deep center that was caught but allowed Bird to move to third, the same effect as a sacrifice bunt. James Nelson’s sacrifice fly to right field score Bird.
“On my first at-bat, I wanted to be aggressive, stay with my approach and get on base any way I could,” Bird said.
“Scoring a run in the first inning is important. It gives your team a chance and gives the pitcher some confidence.”
One run wasn’t going to win it, of course. Hickory tied it when Jose Almonte homered off Beggs in the third inning.
But in the fourth inning, the offense cobbled together three singles, a hit batter, an error and a sacrifice fly to produce four runs and take a 5–1 lead.
A big play in the inning came on Jarett Rindfleisch’s sacrifice fly. Not only did Boo Vazquez score from third, but Aaron Knapp moved from second to third and Dalton Wheat from first to second. Luis Pintor’s groundout to first base scored Knapp and Bird’s single through the pitcher’s legs brought in Wheat. Davis’ single scored the final run.
Pratt credited Wheat for creating the throwing error by second baseman Anderson Tejeda that loaded the bases.
“He pulled one and put pressure on the fielder with the way he ran to first base,” Pratt said. “His hustle put us in a great situation.”
Vazquez ripped a two-run homer in the fifth inning to move the lead to 7–1. Beggs ran into some difficulty in the top of the sixth when he surrendered two runs and had two runners on base with one out. But he summoned something extra and struck out the final two batters to hold the score to 7–3.
“It was pretty hot and humid, but I wasn’t too tired,” Beggs said. “I had left a couple of pitches up and I really wanted to do better and keep the ball down. Rindfleisch (the catcher) called a great set of pitches and we got the last batter on a high fastball.”
Three relievers protected the lead. Michael Mertz used just nine pitches to retire the side in order in the seventh and Marcus Crescentini worked around a leadoff bloop single in the ninth with no damage.
There were some anxious moments in the eighth when Hickory had runners on second and third with no one out against Reilly Hovis. But he got out of the jam with a strikeout and two lineouts.
“Hovis shutting them down, that was big,” Pratt said. “If those two runners score, it’s a 7–5 game.”
Now the Hoppers have three games to see how the four-team race sorts itself out. Even the coaches are feeling the drama.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t watching the scoreboard a little,” said pitching coach Mark DiFelice. “The ultimate goal is to reach the postseason and it would be nice to see all the work we’ve put in be rewarded with a playoff spot.”
NOTES: Dylan Lee will pitch Friday night to open the Delmarva series … Bird had three hits, two runs, an RBI and a stolen base … Vazquez had two hits, two runs and two RBIs … Davis had a pair of hits and an RBI … Nelson was held without a hit for just the seventh time in 49 games played, but he collected two RBIs on a sacrifice fly and a groundout.