Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball at www.gsohoppers.com:
“I’ll take our chances with anybody”
The Hoppers mixed a strange brew Friday night — some long ball, some small ball and some unconventional ball — but in the end it resulted into a celebration.
When Nick Wittgren’s breaking ball froze Hagerstown’s Brett Newsome at the plate for a called third strike, preserving the Hoppers’ 7-5 win, a cart was wheeled onto the field at NewBridge Bank park, champagne was uncorked and the spraying began.
With the win, the Hoppers eliminated the Suns in two straight games to win the Northern Division championship of the South Atlantic League. Their next game will be played Monday on the road against the Southern Division winner. Rome and Asheville are tied at one game each after the Tourists won 6-2 Friday to force a deciding game Saturday.
“I don’t care who we play,” said manager David Berg. “If we pitch like we can and do the little things, I’ll take our chances with anybody.”
The word most of the players used to describe the feeling was “awesome.” Other adjectives mentioned were “incredible,” “exciting,” and “amazing.”
After all, the opportunity to play for a championship was what the team has worked for through the regular season. After winning the Northern Division’s first half and securing a playoff berth, the Hoppers were so-so in the second half, one game under .500. But they have regained their touch in the playoffs.
The long ball part of Friday’s win came early, a pair of two-run homers in the third inning by Wilfredo Gimenez and Austin Barnes. Gimenez drilled a laser shot that didn’t get very high but carried swiftly over the left-field fence after Ryan Rieger had walked.
“This is incredible, being on a championship team last year and getting there again,” said Gimenez, one of just three holdovers from the 2011 SAL winner. “I want to win another one.”
Ryan Goetz followed with a double and Barnes launched his two-run shot.
“He (pitcher Wirkin Estevez) left a pitch up and I saw it pretty good,” Barnes said. “We worked all season for this and it’s fun to still be playing baseball.”
The small ball part came in the way the Hoppers did the little things. They laid down three sacrifice bunts and got a sacrifice fly from Barnes that scored an insurance run in the eighth inning. The defense turned three double plays, including two around-the-horn plays started by Josh Adams.
Ryan Goetz, the leadoff hitter, drove the Suns crazy with three hits, a sacrifice and three runs scored. He scored the insurance run after he singled, went all the way to third on a wild pickoff throw by catcher Adrian Nieto, and came in on the fly ball by Barnes.
“That’s what I’m trying to do at the top of the lineup,” Goetz said, “have good at-bats and get on base. Now we just have to keep it going in the finals.”
Brent Keys added three more hits — the Hoppers got 14 in all — and scored a run. With Goetz leading off, Keys has been hitting third.
“I’ll hit anywhere it helps us win,” he said. “It doesn’t change my game. Goetz has been doing a great job getting on on base and wreaking havoc.
“This is exciting. You can’t ask for anything else. We’re really gelling now, but we still have work to do.”
A key part of the game came after the Suns rallied to tie the score with four runs in the top of the fifth. The Hoppers immediately put two on the board to re-take the lead in the bottom of the inning. Adams and Matt Smith picked up RBIs, scoring Goetz and Keys. Barnes had an important sacrifice in the inning.
“That was huge to answer with those once the game was tied,” Berg said. “If we don’t score, the momentum swings to their side.”
The unconventional part of the game came in the way the Hoppers used their pitchers. It took six of them, including a starter coming out of the bullpen, to get the job done.
Jake Esch cruised through the first 4 1/3 innings, retiring 12 straight after issuing a leadoff walk. But the Suns pieced together six singles, many of them bloops, to score four times. Esch couldn’t finish the inning and Brad Mincey came on with two runners on base and got the final out. Greg Nappo followed with two shutout innings in the sixth and seventh.
Kevin Cravey started eighth but gave up a run on a single, a stolen base and another single to shave the lead to 6-5. With one out and a man on first, Charlie Lowell, a starter until very late in the season, entered. The left-hander got Nieto to hit into a double play to hold the lead.
“It’s something new that I’ve never done before,” Lowell said. “It’s different coming in with a runner on base and pitching out of a stretch. But I feel comfortable doing it. I threw (Nieto) a fastball in on the hands on a 3-and-2 pitch and he hit it on the ground. We turned some big double plays tonight.”
Berg said he thought about using Lowell to start the ninth against the left-handed hitter Caleb Ramsey, but decided to turn the ball over to Wittgren, who set the side down in order just like he did in Hagerstown to earn another save. Closing is a role he relishes.
“With a passion,” he said with a grin. “It gets me pumped up, gets the adrenaline going. I like all the pressure on me.”
Although he has a good fastball, Wittgren’s breaking ball is what baffles hitters. That’s what he threw that fooled Newsome for strike three to end the game.
“It’s called a curve, or a slider, or a ‘slurve,’” he said. “I call it a curve ball. You just have to know when to throw it.”
The championship series is best-of-five. The Hoppers will take Saturday off and work out Sunday. If Rome wins, they will leave Sunday evening. If Asheville wins, they will wait until Monday morning to depart.
After road games Monday and Tuesday and a day off Wednesday, the Hoppers return home for game three Thursday and, if necessary, games four and five on Friday and Saturday.