Bill Hass on Baseball:Smith homers, Hodges closes and Hoppers win

Smith homers, Hodges closes and Hoppers win
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball(Greensboro Grasshoppers) at…

While Austen Smith looks to establish himself, Josh Hodges seeks to reinvent himself.

Both played prominent parts for the Hoppers in their 3-2 win over the Delmarva Shorebirds at NewBridge Bank Park Friday night.

Smith, drafted in the 33rd round last summer, drilled a two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth inning to give Greensboro a one-run lead. Then Hodges, who pitched here in 2012 as a starter, slammed the door to earn the save in the top of the ninth.

It was the Hoppers’ third straight win at home after a slow start on the road.

“What are we, 5-5?” manager Kevin Randel asked rhetorically. “That’s a long way from where we were.”

In the bottom of the eighth, with the Hoppers down 2-1, Arturo Rodriguez led off with a single. Smith worked the count from Shorebirds reliever Derrick Bleeker to 3-and-2, then belted his third homer of the year, a shot to right center field.

“I had faced him in Delmarva and I knew the fastball was his best pitch,” Smith said. “On 2-and-2 he tried to get me to chase a changeup but I laid off. I had a good feeling he would come back with a fastball and I got a piece of it and it went out. This is a small park and I thought I hit it well enough.”

Smith was drafted in a low round out of high school in 2010 but decided on college instead and played four years at Alabama. He watched the draft go by round after round last summer without seeing his name.

“After the 30th and 31st rounds, I joked with my brother that it looked like I would have to get a real job,” he said. “But the Marlins finally took me and I’m grateful for the opportunity. I’m 23 years old, so there’s not much room for error. I need to show what I can do right away.”

Randel said Smith “can hit a fastball a long way. He can turn himself into a prospect.”

Hodges was drafted in the seventh round out of high school in 2009 and was brought along slowly by the Marlins. By the time he reached Greensboro three years ago, he was an established starter and had a solid year, going 8-10 with a 3.65 ERA.

But after an OK season in Jupiter in 2013, things went bad with the Hammerheads in 2014. He was 0-6 with a 7.34 ERA.

“I couldn’t tell you what the problem was,” Hodges said. “I just never settled down and I turned into a liability every fifth day.”

Management suggested he try the bullpen, so he was sent to short-season Batavia, which at first he took as a negative. But he felt differently after talking with pitching coach Brendan Sagara.

“He helped me see that I could make a new name for myself,” Hodges said.

He was used in the back end of the bullpen and worked himself into the role of the closer. In 22 games, he had a 3-5 record with a 2.63 ERA and seven saves.

“I love it now,” he said. “I was used to a routine of every five days and now I have to be ready at a moment’s notice. They told us here that we would put ourselves into various roles. I knew that Colby Suggs (who saved Friday’s win) would be down and I might get a chance. I put my foot in the door.”

Hodges made quick work of the Shorebirds, striking out the first two batters and getting the third on a fly ball to center field.

“He was outstanding,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell. “He was aggressive, got ahead in the count with his fastball and really got after it.”

Powell also liked the gritty effort of starter Ben Holmes, who pitched five scoreless innings to start the game before being charged with two runs in the sixth and being lifted with two outs.

“He was behind in the count a lot but he battled, made good pitches when he needed to and never wavered,” Powell said.

The Hoppers’ first run of the game was manufactured by Zach Sullivan. He led off the third inning with a bunt single, stole second base, went to third on a flyout to right field and scored when a pitch went off the catcher’s glove and Sullivan beat the throw to the pitcher covering home.

“That was actually a pickoff play,” Randel said. “I saw the third baseman moving to the bag and I was yelling ‘back, back’ but the ball squirted off the catcher’s glove and (Sullivan) took off. He can fly.”

NOTES: James Buckelew picked up the win in relief, his second of the season … Rodriguez, Sullivan and Isael Soto each had two hits for the Hoppers … John Norwood made two sparkling defensive plays in the fourth inning. The left fielder ran down a slicing fly ball with a leaping catch and later threw out a runner at home plate … The Hoppers go for the sweep today with Michael Mader the starting pitcher in the 4 p.m. game.