Hass on Hoppers as they head home from Hickory and get ready for the CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES

from Bill Hass, with the Bill on Baseball Blog, at www.gsohoppers.com:

Hoppers sweep into championship series

“What a ball game!”

Those words from Hopper manager Andy Haines neatly summed things up Friday night after his team beat Hickory 2-0 at L.P. Frans Stadium to sweep the SAL’s Northern Division playoff in two games.

Next up for the Hoppers: Games Monday and Tuesday in NewBridge Bank Park, against either Augusta or Savannah to start the best-of-5 championship series. Those teams are tied 1-1 in the Southern Division playoffs and will play the deciding game tonight in Savannah.

After so many come-from behind victories in the last few weeks, it was natural to wonder how the Hoppers would play with a lead. The answer? Just fine, thank you.

Left-hander James Leverton pitched seven splendid innings, allowing only two hits and one walk while striking out 10. He kept the Crawdads off balance all night with his mix of pitches, often leaving them muttering to themselves as they returned to the dugout.

“I used my fastball in and out,” Leverton said, “and that set up the breaking ball. My changeup was really on and J.T. (Realmuto, the catcher) called for me to throw it in good counts. We were on the same page all night.

“It was a close game and I just concentrated on getting guys out and minimizing it if anybody got on.”

The Crawdads mustered just three baserunners all night and only one got as far as second base. Leverton retired the first 11 batters before giving up a single to Tomas Telis in the bottom of the fourth. After that, Kellin Deglan reached on a bunt single to start the sixth and Jake Skole walked in the seventh. That was it.

“That was as good a pitching performance as I’ve seen in a long time,” Haines said. “The big question was whether or not to leave him (Leverton) in the game. But I had Grant Dayton and Michael Brady sitting down there and they were ready and I wasn’t going to let them sit there and watch.”

Dayton came on for the eighth and retired the first two batters on strikeouts and the third on a fly ball. Brady took over in the ninth and induced three ground balls, the last one back to him, to wrap up the game.

“I really wanted to come out strong and focus on my location,” said Brady, who had surrendered a home run that temporarily gave Hickory the lead in Wednesday’s 15-inning game. “I definitely didn’t want to give up another home run. I wanted to keep the ball down.”

The second of the two grounders was a slow roller that was charged by second baseman Noah Perio and first baseman Mark Canha. Somehow they communicated and Canha stopped and went over to cover first base. Perio scooped up the ball with his glove and shoveled it over to Canha to nip the runner for the out. It’s not the kind of play an infielder practices.

“I knew it was going to be a close play and I did what I had to do,” Perio said. “It was just in the moment.”

Offensively, the Hoppers did just enough to back up the stellar pitching. Hickory starter Will Lamb, a 6-foot-6 lefty drafted in the second round out of Clemson in June, was tough in his five innings, allowing four hits and one walk while striking out eight. But one of the hits was a solo homer by Ryan Fisher in the second inning.

“Smoke (hitting coach Kevin Randel) told me to look for something inside,” Fisher said. “The first pitch was in and I fouled it off and broke my bat. I knew he would come in again and he got a little too much of the plate. I turned on it and I knew it was out.”

The taut game continued at 1-0 through six innings. In the seventh, against reliever Ben Henry, Isaac Galloway drew a leadoff walk. Haines asked Danny Black to sacrifice, but he popped up a bunt attempt. Deglan, the Crawdads catcher, pursued it near the backstop and made a superb lunging catch.

Galloway, watching intently, tagged up and went to second base, which is something you don’t often see on a foul popup.

“If he stands up and catches it, I”m staying at first,” Galloway said. “But if he had to dive for the ball, I was going to give it a shot. It was kind of risky, and I just reacted.”

The heads-up play turned into a run when Perio laced a single to left field to score Galloway and give the Hoppers an insurance run.

“Their catcher makes an incredible play and Isaac makes a better one by tagging and going to second,” Haines said. “That’s completely on his own. In a game like that, the second run makes a lot of difference.”

Haines never relaxed, even as well as his pitchers were throwing.

“You don’t ever feel good with a 1-0 lead because I know how dangerous Hickory is,” he said. “You’re not comfortable until you get on that bus and go home.”