Walk the batter in front of K.J. Woods and you run the risk of giving him the motivation he needs.
Woods shook off a woeful day at the plate to deliver a double that drove in the go-ahead run in the bottom of the eighth inning and propelled the Hoppers past the Greenville Drive 4-2 in NewBridge Bank Park Wednesday afternoon.
After Rony Cabrera singled and was sacrificed to second by Brian Schales, the Drive elected to give an intentional walk to Arturo Rodriguez, who had hit two home runs in Tuesday’s 12-4 win. The move set up a double play but created an unusual matchup with right-hander Mario Alcantara having to face the left-handed Woods.
Perhaps Woods’ day at the plate — two weak groundouts and a called third strike — influenced the decision. But what Greenville didn’t realize was the effect on Woods.
“I took that extremely personally,” Woods said. “I even said something to the umpire about it. It got me fired up.”
Woods drove Alcantar’s second pitch off the top of the wall in right center field to score Cabrera and give the Hoppers a 3-2 lead. They tacked on an insurance run.
“This is a game of failure and I learned from my first three at-bats,” Woods said. “So I planned to hit the ball hard and try to knock someone’s glove off. I took the first pitch just to see (Alcantara’s) delivery. Then he threw me the same fastball in the same spot and I wasn’t going to let him get away with that.”
It was a situation Woods relishes.
“Challenges make the game fun,” he said, “so why not raise the stakes?”
Hitting coach Luis Quinones said Woods had been pulling his front shoulder off the ball.
“He’s got to stay with the pitch, keep his head still and his shoulder in,” Quinones said. “He made the adjustment, got his arm out and sort of whipped the bat. He’s strong enough to hit the ball out of any park.”
Cabrera gave the Hoppers a 1-0 lead in the third with his second homer of the season. Greenville tied it in the sixth but the Hoppers got it right back with Austen’s Smith’s 11th homer, which just dropped over the fence in left field. When the Drive tied things in the eighth, it set the stage for Woods.
“K.J. is a good bat in a lineup, a big presence in the box,” said manager Kevin Randel. “He just flicked his wrists on that homer. The key for him is don’t throw at-bats away and play good defense. He’s getting better at that.”
Hoppers starter Michael Mader pitched into the seventh inning, getting one out and giving up a single before Randel lifted him in favor of C.J. Robinson. Mader gave up five singles and one walk while striking out four.
“He worked ahead in the count, which makes things easier,” Powell said, “and he was getting outs by putting his fastball in the zone.”
Robinson wound up with the win and Josh Hodges got his 10th save with a dominant ninth inning, using nine pitches to get two strikeouts and a routine fly to center.
“He’s done a great job,” Powell said of the converted starter. “He has taken the ball (as a closer) and we’ve ridden him.”
The win was the fourth straight for the Hoppers, who are looking for a strong finish in the first half to build momentum for the second half.
“We’re finally coming together,” Woods said, “and we’re looking forward to seeing how this plays out. There was a lot of frustration. This isn’t an easy game and you take every day as a challenge. You try to stay on an even plane physically, but as far as mentally and putting forth effort, you should be locked in every day.”
The Hoppers can sweep the Drive by winning Thursday’s 7 o’clock game. Jordan Holloway, who joined the club recently, will make his second start. The 19-year-old right-hander gave up five runs in four innings in a loss against Lexington. He features a good fastball and classic 12-to-6 curve but is a raw talent.
NOTES: Five of Greenville’s seven hits came from the top two hitters in the order … Mauricio Dubon had two plus a run scored and a stolen base, and Derek Miller had three hits and an RBI … Smith had an unusual RBI in the eighth inning. With Mason Davis pinch-running at third for Rodriguez, Smith hit a grounder to third baseman Michael Chavis. The throw went to home but Davis beat it for a run. Catcher Jordan Procyshen fired to first base to get Smith, an unusual 5-2-3 putout.