Another gritty effort sends Hoppers to playoffs
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball at www.gsohoppers.com
HICKORY– His contact lenses were soaked with so much champagne that it made his eyes burn, but Michael Mertz didn’t care.
“It feels awesome,” he said with a broad smile. “I was right in the middle of it (the celebration) and I had a blast.”
Mertz pitched the ninth inning and recorded an assist on the final out to nail down the Hoppers’ 2–1 win over Hickory Monday afternoon. The win clinched the SAL Northern Division for the second half, rendering West Virginia’s game at Delmarva irrelevant.
Officially, things ended this way: Greensboro in first place with a 38–30 record and a .559 percentage. West Virginia, which did win its game, finished second at 39–31 with a .557 percentage.
Next up for the Hoppers is a best-of-three playoff series against Kannapolis. The first game will be played Wednesday at 7 p.m. at First National Bank Field. After a day off Thursday, Kannapolis will host the second game Friday and, if needed, the third game Saturday. The winner moves on to the championship series against either Greenville or Charleston from the Southern Division.
After Mertz snagged a high-hopper and made an underhand flip to first baseman Eric Gutierrez for the final out, there was some hugging and jumping up and down, but things were a bit subdued.
That changed outside the locker room. Team president Donald Moore presented the champagne and then corks popped, bottles were shaken and sprayed and a group of closely-knit players engaged in several minutes of joyous celebration for what they had accomplished.
And they pulled it off with the same gritty, grinding determination that characterized their play all season.
“We tried to approach it as just another game and go out and throw zeroes,” said reliever Kyle Keller, who threw three shutout innings. “But we knew it was a must-win game and that added to the fun.”
Outfielder Brian Miller, who contributed an excellent catch in the top of the eighth inning, said the team was loose before the game started.
“We’re all mature players who have played a lot of baseball,” he said. “So why not play hard for one last game?”
Aaron Knapp, who turned in two key throws from center field, said he liked the situation. The Hoppers had come close to winning the first half but didn’t get the help they needed. This time, they had the chance to win it outright.
“It was cool to know your fate was in your own hands,” he said.
Not that it was easy. Hickory, with nothing to play for since it was eliminated Sunday, wasn’t about to roll over. Right-hander Michael Matuella pitched shutout ball for four innings, working around the edges of some trouble.
Jarett Rindfleisch and Jhonny Santos opened the fifth inning by drawing walks and moved up on an excellent sacrifice bunt by Rony Cabrera. Luis Pintor did his job with a grounder to second base that scored Rindfleisch to tie the game 1–1.
In the sixth inning, against Hickory reliever Parker Sanburn, Gutierrez belted his seventh homer of the year high over the left-field fence to give the Hoppers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“I just wanted to hit it hard somewhere,” Gutierrez said. “It was a pitch down the middle and I was on time with my swing. We knew it was going to come down to the last out. We have played a lot of tight games that prepared us for one like this.”
Starting pitcher Dustin Beggs was effective in tough situations. He had a runner on third with two outs in the first inning but ended things with a strikeout. He gave up a single and an RBI triple in the second inning, then came back with two strikeouts and a flyout to strand the runner at third.
A walk and a double put runners on second and third with one out in the third inning. Beggs got a shallow flyout to center field and Knapp’s good throw home held the runner at third. A strikeout ended the inning with two more runners stranded.
After a double and a walk put runners on base in the fourth with two outs, Blaine Prescott singled to center. As Hickory’s Ryan Dorow was waved home, Knapp came up with the ball quickly and uncorked a perfect throw to Rindfleisch, who made the tag at the plate for the third out.
“I knew he was running on contact and I had to get rid of the ball in a hurry,” Knapp said. “I got to it and threw it as hard as I could to give Rindfleisch a chance.”
In the fifth inning, Beggs was backed up by yet another fine play. Hickory’s Alex Kowalczyk scorched a grounder to Pintor who got his glove on it, dropped it for a moment and still had time to recover and start an inning-ending double play.
Beggs earned his 10th win of the season after a couple of shaky outings. He credited pitching coach Mark DiFelice with helping him get back on track.
“We talked about me hitting a reset button after a hit or a wild pitch,” Beggs said. “Go to a place that’s not baseball and clear my thoughts. And that’s what I visualized?—?a reset button.”
DiFelice said that was the kind of thing he has been waiting to see all season.
“He’s had some games when he’s been dominant,” DiFelice said. “Late in the season he’s gotten hurt by not handling trouble. With guys on base, I wanted to see him be able to refocus and get out of it. This is a step up in his development.”
It took 78 pitches for Beggs to get through five innings, so Keller was next up. He walked the first batter he faced, then retired the next nine in a row, including five straight by strikeout.
“I’m just trying to throw strikes,” Keller said. “I’d rather get ground balls, but if the strikeouts are there, I’ll take them.”
Keller was aided by Miller’s catch in the eighth inning. With two outs, Charles Leblanc of the Crawdads sliced a drive toward the right field foul line. Miller ran to it, put his glove down low to snag the ball and ran a couple of steps to secure it and end the inning.
“It was one of those things where I didn’t know whether I should dive for it or not,” Miller said. “I caught it in the webbing, almost a snowcone, about a foot off the ground. Once I felt the ball hit the glove, it was instinct.”
Mertz had pitched 2 2/3 innings Saturday to close out a 2–0 win for the Hoppers and his availability was uncertain.
“He felt good and the feedback from him was good,” said manager Todd Pratt.
Mertz had used only 25 pitches Saturday and felt he could throw an inning Monday. He retired the first batter in the ninth on a flyout, then surrendered a single. A popout took care of the second out, but the Crawdads got another single to extend things.
Then Prescott bounced one back that Mertz fielded and tossed to Gutierrez to officially put the Hoppers in the playoffs.
“Getting that first out was huge,” Mertz said. “That way, I knew I could still get out of the inning with one pitch. The last batter hit it up the middle and I got my glove up to get it, which is something we practice. It’s pretty cool to be able to finish the game myself.”
And pretty cool to be going to the playoffs.