Bill Hass on Baseball:Consistent Hoppers, Suns open playoff series

Consistent Hoppers, Suns open playoff series
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball(Greensboro Grasshoppers) at…..

This is the way it was supposed to be.

What else can you say about the first-round playoff matchup between the Hoppers and Hagerstown? Not only did the SAL Northern Division rivals finish the season with the same overall record — 87-53 — they had the same record in each half. Both were remarkably consistent, going 44-26 in the first half and 43-27 in the second half. Greensboro won the first half because it beat the Suns three out of four meetings. Hagerstown won the second half because it beat the Hoppers five out of seven.

The 87 wins by the Hoppers, incidentally, is the third-most for any Greensboro franchise since 1950.

There’s little edge in the season series, won by Hagerstown 6-5. But the Hoppers had the last taste of victory, laying a 14-6 drubbing on the Suns by scoring nine runs in the top of the ninth inning.

Now they play a best-of-three series to determine who moves on to the SAL championship series. Asheville and Savannah will meet to decide the Southern Division winner. It’s fitting that these four teams are in the playoffs because they were clearly the best in the league. Asheville won 89 games and Savannah 85.

Wednesday’s opener will be played at Hagerstown at 7:05 p.m., with Domingo German (9-3, 2.48 ERA) starting for Greensboro against Wander Suero (4-1, 2.13) for the Suns. The scene shifts to Greensboro for the second game Friday at 7, with Chris Sadberry (4-1, 2.65) pitching for the Hoppers and Reynaldo Lopez (4-1, 1.33) for Hagerstown.

If a third game is needed, it will also be in NewBridge Bank Park on Saturday at 7. Scheduled starters are Kyle Fischer (1-1, 3.38) for Greensboro and Nick Pivetta (13-8, 4.22) for the Suns.
One pitcher the Hoppers won’t have to face is Lucas Giolito (10-2, 2.20), a top prospect who was shut down for the season by the parent Washington Nationals in mid-August. Giolito is two years removed from Tommy John surgery and was limited to 98 innings this season.

In a short series, how much advantage is there in winning the first game?

“It takes the pressure off,” said Hoppers manager David Berg. “But you still have to worry about the game that night.”

The key to beating Hagerstown, Berg said, is keeping one-two hitters Wilmer Difo and Rafael Bautista off the bases. Difo was voted the league’s MVP after hitting .315 with 14 homers and 90 RBIs. Bautista hit .290 with five homers and 54 RBIs. But they are most dangerous running the bases. Combined, they stole 118 bases (Difo 49, Bautista 69).

“If we keep them in check, I like our chances,” Berg said.

That kind of speed and aggressiveness extends through the lineup. Blink an eye and anyone will take an extra base going from first to third. That puts extra pressure on the pitchers to hold the runners close and on the defense to field precisely. The speed guys set the table for hitters like Jimmy Yezzo (13 HR, 56 RBI), Goldsboro native John Wooten (8-54), Drew Ward (10-73) and former Clemson catcher Spencer Kieboom (9-61).

“We need to make sure we get the first out of every inning,” said Hoppers shortstop J.T. Riddle.
“They love those first two hitters and they have some guys who can hit homers and doubles in the gaps.”

The Hoppers counter with a lineup of solid hitters one through nine. Six players finished the season at .300 or better — Carlos Lopez .323, Chad Wallach .321, AVery Romero .320, Brian Anderson .314, Austin Dean .308 and Felix Munoz .300.

“We can hit anybody,” said Riddle, who finished at .280. “We’ve done it all year.”

Munoz, who led the club with 16 homers and 91 RBIs, said the hitting approach is simple.

“Go out (to a lead) early and get their bullpen into the game,” he said.

German, whose innings have been limited in the second half of the season, gave the Hoppers five innings in his last start and held Kannapolis to one hit and two walks while striking out seven. Suero pitched seven innings against the Hoppers on Aug. 21 and was touched for nine hits and three earned runs.

Depending on pitch count, German might be able to get into or through the sixth inning. But if he can deliver five, the bullpen is ready to pick him up. The return of Sean Donatello, who had 11 saves before being promoted to Jupiter (he added six more there) gives the Hoppers flexibility late in a game. Tyler Kinley (10 saves) and Tyler Bremer are also capable of closing or pitching in the eighth.

There are plenty of arms available for the sixth and seventh innings — Esmerling de la Rosa, Jose Arias, Miguel del Pozo, Tyler Kane and Ryan Wertenberger are solid options.

“We might need it,” Berg said of the deep bullpen.