Bill Hass on Hoppers Baseball:Hoppers celebrate division title

from Bill Hass at…..Time to enjoy the Hoopers’ Saturday night victory with Bill….

Hoppers celebrate division title

In the end, the Hoppers did it the way they wanted to.

Their tense 5-4 win over Charleston Saturday night clinched the first-half title of the Northern Division in the SAL and an automatic spot in the playoffs. As it turned out, Hagerstown lost to West Virginia in 10 innings, but that result was rendered irrelevant by the Hoppers’ victory.

“Winning (the first half) on a win feels way better than getting in with a Hagerstown loss,” said outfielder Ryan McIntyre, one of many Hopper heroes.

For James Wooster, who delivered a home run as the DH, it was the second straight division title he has experienced. He was part of the 2011 team that won the second half on the last day of the regular season and then won the SAL championship.

“It has been a lot of fun with a different group of guys,” he said, “and it has been a blast. I only played one game with this team in spring training so I didn’t know what to expect when the season started. But I knew it was a group that could play good baseball.”

Jose Fernandez pitched eight innings and even though he was touched for eight hits and four runs, he bore down when it meant the most. He recorded 11 strikeouts in running his record to 7-0 and recording his first win of the season in NewBridge Bank Park. He had said Friday night that he didn’t care what the score was as long as his team scored one more run, and that’s exactly how it turned out.

“This has been amazing,” he said. “The fans, the people in the front office, the team. I love it. It’s been a great experience for me.”

Fernandez had so much adrenaline early in the game that he threw some fastballs at 98 mph as he cruised through the first three innings. He gave up a solo home run to Charleston’s talented catcher, Gary Sanchez, in the fourth inning, but the Hoppers staked him to a 4-1 lead in the bottom of that inning when Wooster, Wilfredo Gimenez and McIntyre hit solo home runs.

Wooster said he hit a fastball in, a high fly that stayed a couple of feet fair inside the foul pole. Gimenez said he hit a slider for his first homer of the year and McIntyre, after he fouled off a bunt, got a fastball in that carried out with good backspin.

Normally, that would have been plenty for the league’s best pitcher. But the RiverDogs have a good-hitting lineup and in the sixth inning, with two outs, they turned a double and two singles into two runs and scored a third on an unusual base-running play. The runner on first, Casey Stevenson, broke for second base but stopped short when he drew a throw from Gimenez. The runner on third, Angelo Gumbs, broke for home and crossed the plate before the Hoppers could complete the rundown and tag out Stevenson.

At that point, the Hoppers could have been in shock with the game suddenly tied 4-4. But they went right to work in the bottom of the sixth. Terrence Dayleg reached on an error, went on to third on a single by Gimenez and scored when McIntyre hit into a fielder’s choice. McIntyre was probably robbed of a hit by Stevenson at third base, but he didn’t care.

“In that situation, you just make sure you get the run in,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”

Fernandez, tiring a bit, knew he had to make good pitches and keep them low. He got two quick outs in the seventh, then gave up a single and threw wild on a pickoff attempt that advanced the runner to second. But he fanned Mason Williams to end the inning.

In the eighth, Fernandez used his slider to its full advantage. He struck out the first batter looking and the second one swinging. That brought up Sanchez, who was 3-for-3 with two RBIs. Manager David Berg didn’t want to intentionally walk him and put the tying run on base, so he let Fernandez pitch to him. And Fernandez had a plan.

“I didn’t think he would be waiting for a first-pitch fastball, so I threw one at 97 that he fought off for a strike,” he said. “I said, ‘OK, you’re not going to see that again.’ Then I threw two sliders that he didn’t swing at.”

Sanchez just headed for the dugout when strike three was called.

Greg Nappo came in from the bullpen in the ninth and struck out the first batter. But Charleston refused to go quietly and rapped two singles to put runners on first and third. Nappo reached back and struck out Francisco Arcia, then got Kelvin DeLeon to hit a grounder to shortstop. Dayleg ranged to his right, speared it and fired to Austin Barnes at second base for the forceout that ended the game.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous,” Dayleg said, “but I just trusted my instincts and they took over.”

It was another in a series of excellent defensive plays by Dayleg, who made a diving stop to his left and scrambled up to throw out a hitter in the fourth, started a key double play in the fifth inning and jumped to snag a high hopper that he turned into an out in the sixth.

After his last play, the celebration began. Players sprinted in from their positions, came out of the bullpen and poured out of the dugout. They avoided the kind of dogpile that sometimes results in an injury, settling for high fives and chest bumps before heading to the champagne and spraying it on each other and anything else that moved. Fernandez even doused Guilford the Grasshopper mascot.

“I enjoyed every bit of it,” Fernandez said. “It doesn’t matter about the numbers, the strikeouts and all that. It’s all about the team winning. You know who played super today? Dayleg. He played with his heart.”

Just the way you’re supposed to when a division title is on the line.