Bill Hass on Baseball:Easley, Johnson help lift Hoppers by Power

“It’s a rush being back in North Carolina,” he said. “It’s great for my wife because she wasn’t going to get to travel with me this year. Here, she’ll get to as many games as she can.”
Josh Easley

from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball(Greensboro Grasshoppers) at….

Easley, Johnson help lift Hoppers by Power

Josh Easley is glad to be back in North Carolina and Coco Johnson is just glad to be out of Florida for the time being.

The two played key roles for the Hoppers Friday night, with Easley earning a save and Johnson getting three hits as Greensboro rallied for an 8-7 win over West Virginia.

Easley has been with the team for a little more than a week. The right-hander pitched at NC State in 2013 and 2011 (missing 2012 after Tommy John surgery) and his wife lives in Raleigh.

“It’s a rush being back in North Carolina,” he said. “It’s great for my wife because she wasn’t going to get to travel with me this year. Here, she’ll get to as many games as she can.”

While he started and pitched long relief with the Wolfpack, Easley settled into a short relief role. Drafted in the 23rd round last summer, he posted a 5-0 record and 0.59 ERA with four saves, mostly with Batavia in the New York-Penn League. He was held in extended spring training until a kink in his shoulder healed and he joined the Hoppers.

He had made two previous appearances, but Friday’s was different. He came out for the ninth inning to protect a one-run lead. After getting two fly ball outs, he gave up a single, then got the Power’s Wyatt Mathison to hit into a fielder’s choice to end the game.

“It never gets any easier in the ninth inning,” Easley said. “It’s definitely not like the other eight innings. But I like the added adrenaline; it makes me more focused. I love the late-inning atmosphere and it’s a role I would like to be in.”

The season is early enough that the bullpen pitchers are still sorting out their roles, and the Hoppers are approaching the closer’s spot by committee. Their five saves have come from four pitchers.

“We want to give everyone different looks in different situations,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell. “Roles are not as important as experience. I thought Easley did well. He’s a sinker-slider pitcher with some college experience, so he’s got some polish.”

Johnson joined the team Thursday and started Friday’s game in center field. It was a drastic change from playing day games that almost nobody watches in extended spring training in Jupiter.

“I was up every morning at 6:30 down there,” Johnson said, “so I can sleep in now. And this is the most people I’ve played in front of (5,563) since I was (in college) at Louisville. It gave me goose bumps.”

He beat out two infield hits and had a big RBI in the eighth inning when he bounced a single past the first baseman into right field to score Chad Wllalch and tie the game. Justin Bohn drove in Austin Dean with the winning run on a fielder’s choice when he hustled down the line and beat the throw that would have completed a double play.

“That was really a nice game for him,” manager David Berg said of Johnson. “He gets three hits, scores two runs and gets a big RBI.”

Johnson may not be in the lineup every day, but he will try to be a catalyst on the days he’s penciled in.

“My job is to get on base, get around them and score runs,” he said. “I want to be the guy that crosses the plate.”

The game went back and forth, with the Hoppers jumping to a 3-0 lead, falling behind 6-3, tying it 6-6, going down 7-6 and scoring twice in the eighth to win.

Felix Munoz had three hits and four RBIs, driving in a run with a double and three more with a home run in the bottom of the seventh to tie the game. He leads the team with 24 RBIs and is hitting .350.

“He had a couple of games where he scuffled (including a four-strikeout game) so we gave him a day off,” Berg said. “Good hitters don’t scuffle long.”

The teams play the second of four games Saturday at NewBridge Bank Park at 7 p.m. Ryan Newell will start for the Hoppers.