from Bill Hass, with Bill on Baseball at www.gsohoppers.com:
Hoppers come to expect late-inning heroics
Another game, another win, another hero.
Monday night it was Mark Canha’s turn and he delivered a two-out, two-run single in the bottom of the ninth inning to send the Hoppers to a 5-4 win over the Savannah Sand Gnats in the opening game of the SAL championship series.
Game 2 of the best-of-5 series will be back in NewBridge Bank Park Tuesday night, with Robert Morey on the mound for Greensboro.
“How you do explain something like that?” said outfielder Christian Yelich. “You can’t. It’s a different guy every night.”
The win was the 14th in the last 15 games for the Hoppers and, like most of them, came in the most dramatic fashion. Most of the team felt it was a game they had to win twice.
Savannah carried a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth. The Hoppers did put the leadoff hitter on base but that was followed by two outs. Marcell Ozuna, who had hit a two-run homer in the first inning, felt it was the spot to try for another. He hooked a long fly down the left field line that most fans and players felt was a game-winning home run. The Hoppers spilled on the field and began a celebration, but ….
It was ruled a foul ball.
Manager Andy Haines stormed out of the dugout, argued, got ejected and drop-kicked a batting helmet about 20 yards before he left the field. The ruling also meant the count on Ozuna was 2-and-2, so the Hoppers were down to their last strike.
“The last thing I said to Ozuna before I left the field was ‘don’t let this beat you,’” Haines said.
Ozuna didn’t. He took a close pitch for ball three, then kept his discipline and took a low one for ball four to keep the inning going.
“I tried for a home run,” Ozuna said of the at-bat. “I thought the ball was fair, and then I said ‘I’ve got one more try, but if I can’t do it, the guys behind me will do it.’”
Yelich was up next and it figured left-hander Hamilton Bennett wasn’t going to give him anything good to hit. Yelich took two balls, fouled one off and took two more balls to load the bases.
At that point, Savannah switched to right-hander Ronny Moria to face the right-handed Canha. It was the percentage move, and Canha had not been swinging the bat well lately. But he did single in his previous at-bat, and that helped.
“The way I’ve been hitting, I was sure they would rather pitch to me (than Yelich),” Canha said. “I just wanted to make sure I went back to hitting fundamentals and everything (in his swing) was closed up. When I got that first single, I like like I had found it. Just before the (last) at-bat, I told myself to have fun, no matter what the outcome.”
Moria delivered his first pitch and Canha drilled it into right center field to score Danny Black and Ozuna. It would have been good for a double, but Canha was engulfed by his teammates before he reached second base.
“Smoke (hitting coach Kevin Randel) said to look for a slider,” Canha said. “I got my pitch and tried to hit it up the middle.
“Ozuna’s walk was huge. He has a home run taken away and he could have hung his head. But he goes in and battles and gets a walk.”
It was a huge night overall for Ozuna. In the top of the first inning he laid out for a diving catch with two outs and the bases loaded. If the ball gets by him, all three Sand Gnats score and it’s a different game. After his home run put the Hoppers up 2-0, he made another fine catch in the second inning when he turned and went back to the fence to haul in a fly ball on the warning track.
“Don’t think too much,” Ozuna said he told himself. “I just said ‘dive and you can get it.’ On the other one, I said ‘I know I can catch it.’”
Savannah put single runs up in the second, third, fourth and eighth innings, with Blake Forsythe getting two solo home runs. After Ozuna’s homer, the Hoppers got a home run by Ryan Fisher but twice left the bases loaded without scoring.
On a night when starter Kyle Winters wasn’t sharp, he still limited the Sand Gnats to three runs in his 4 1/3 innings. Alex Caldera pitched 2 2/3 innings of shutout relief and Grant Dayton pitched the final two, giving up the second of Forsythe’s homers.
“It took us 26 outs, but it happened,” Haines said. “Not a lot of things faze us. On any good team, it has to be a different guy every night because one guy can’t carry you.”
It has gotten to the point that the Hoppers know something good is going to happen, no matter how long it takes.
“You can just feel it,” Yelich said. “And I think the other team can feel it, too.”
Added catcher J.T. Realmuto: “We don’t know what it’s going to be, but we come to expect it now.”
“This is unbelievable,” Canha said. “It’s like a dream.”
And it isn’t finished yet.