Bill Hass on Baseball:Hoppers missing their catalyst

Bill Hass on Greensboro Grasshoppers Baseball from…..

Hoppers missing their catalyst

You don’t have to look far to find a common denominator for the Hoppers in their Saturday and Sunday games.

Brent Keys wasn’t in the lineup.

The center fielder sat out with a sore hamstring and the Hoppers dropped both games, 4-3 Saturday and 7-3 Sunday.

Now, his absence wasn’t the only reason. The Hoppers made two errors Saturday and three more Sunday that proved costly and some hitters failed to deliver in clutch situations. But there’s no denying Keys’ league-leading .387 average and 33 runs scored (fourth best in the SAL) were sorely missed. He has been the team catalyst, especially lately.

“It’s hard to replace a guy like Keys,” said manager David Berg. “You can feel it when he’s not in the lineup.”

Berg said Keys felt better Sunday than he did Saturday and doesn’t believe it’s going to be a serious issue. But the Hoppers are going to be careful about not rushing him back in the lineup.

“I would rather lose him for a couple of games now than later,” Berg said.

Sunday’s loss was the second straight in NewBridge Bank Park after the Hoppers had won 16 in a row there. But two straight losses is hardly cause for panic, especially when you consider the Hoppers are still 30-12 overall and 20-4 at home. Nobody else in the SAL matches those records. And they remain six games ahead of Hagerstown, which lost to Delmarva Sunday.

The Hoppers head out on the road for eight games, beginning with three in Hagerstown. Suns manager Brian Daubach is an old teammate of Berg’s.

“I can’t wait to play them,” Berg said. “It will let us know where we are as a team.”

Jose Fernandez, who had his shortest outing of the season in his last start (four innings) will pitch Monday, followed by Josh Hodges Tuesday and Charlie Lowell Wednesday.

The Hoppers then move on to Delmarva for five games in four days. They will make up a game they lost to rain in Greensboro as part a double-header Thursday. Fortunately it falls on the day of the piggyback tandem, so Austin Brice and Jose Urena will each start one of the games.

Then it’s back to Adam Conley, who has had two sub-par outings. Although he pitched well at times Sunday, Conley was lifted in the sixth inning with no one out. He finished with four runs allowed and contributed a throwing error that figured in the third-inning scoring. He was saddled with his first loss.

“When he gets ahead of hitters he’s not putting them away,” said pitching coach Blake McGinley. “He needs to start trusting his slider and using it as an out pitch. He’ll be fine.”

The Hoppers failed to capitalize on some opportunities at the plate. In the first inning Lakewood starter Lino Martinez walked the bases loaded but James Wooster, the team’s hottest hitter, popped out to end the inning.

“You’ve got to get a couple of runs there,” Berg said. “We let (Martinez) off the hook.”

The Hoppers loaded the bases again in the seventh but squeezed out just one run, with Matt Smith grounding into a double play to kill the rally. They stranded two more runners in the ninth. Smith and Josh Adams hit solo home runs and Ryan Rieger picked up the other RBI.

Greensboro won’t see Lakewood again in the first half. The teams have played 14 times, with the Hoppers owning an 8-6 edge. The BlueClaws have dealt the Hoppers three of their four defeats at home.