The lower levels of the minor leagues are much like going to school, and Wednesday the Hoppers won a game in textbook fashion.
In the hot August sun of an afternoon game, the Hoppers executed the way they have been taught, scoring a run in the bottom of the 10th inning to beat Lakewood 6-5. Zach Sullivan led off with a double, went to third on a sacrifice bunt by Mason Davis and scored on a single by John Norwood to end the game.
Get them on, move them over, get them in.
“It’s something we haven’t done often, especially in the second half (of the season),” said hitting coach Luis Quinones. “Each batter has to do his job and the guy after him has to do his job and then the guy after him and that helps win ball games.”
The offense was stymied for much of the game. After Felix Castillo drove in two runs with a double in the second inning, the Hoppers collected only one more hit for the next five innings, falling behind 5-2.
Things changed when BlueClaws reliever Scott Harris entered in the eighth. Sullivan battled him and finally dumped a bloop single into short left field to get things started.
“They were pitching me low and I didn’t want to get myself out,” Sullivan said. “I fought off a couple of pitches (foul balls) and then they threw an inside fastball that sort of jammed me. But I got it over the shortstop’s head. That’s baseball. My first two at-bats I hit the ball hard and made outs.”
That set the table for Davis, who drilled a long home run that hit the concourse over Natty’s Hill to cut the lead to 5-4. Two outs later, Arturo Rodriguez mashed another long homer and the game was tied.
“I had been hitting fly balls the whole game,” said Davis, who flied out three times. “So I wanted to put a good swing on the ball and hit it hard and I got into it.”
The Hoppers didn’t do anything in the bottom of the ninth, but in the 10th Sullivan rapped a double inside the first base bag into the right field corner.
“I knew it was a double out of the box,” he said. “I was just hoping it wouldn’t hook foul.”
Everyone knew Davis would be bunting, but he still dropped one down that was fielded by the first baseman, who had to throw to the second baseman covering the bag as Sullivan advanced to third.
“I just wanted to make sure I didn’t bunt it back to the pitcher,” Davis said.
Norwood, who was 0-for-4, came up and faced an exotic shift by Lakewood manager Shawn Williams. The BlueClaws brought in one outfielder and stationed him in the infield. That put five players in a drawn-in infield, three to the left of second base and two to the right. Two outfielders played shallow, fairly close to each other in center field.
Norwood foiled that strategy by lining a drive to the outfield that fell in for a hit to score Sullivan.
“I haven’t seen anyone do that to that extent,” Norwood said of the shift. “My job was to hit the ball in the air. I got a changeup down and I had to go down to get it. I thought it was going to be caught, but it fell in.”
Sullivan said he hesitated for a moment, but when he saw the ball headed to the turf he took off.
Hoppers manager Kevin Randel said the kind of shift Lakewood used, plus another extreme shift Monday and Tuesday against K.J. Woods, are unusual in the lower minor leagues.
“I like what he (Williams) does over there,” Randel said. “It’s advanced stuff. They do it in the big leagues, so why not here?”
The overlooked part of the story was Greensboro’s pitching. Starter Enderson Franco gave up 11 hits, including two homers, and five runs but made it through seven innings, putting a zero on the board in the top of the seventh.
James Buckelew allowed only a walk in two innings and Jose Velez retired the side in order in his inning, striking out two. Velez, who picked up the win, has allowed only one earned run in his last 10 appearances, walking just two and striking out 22 over 13 1/3 innings.
“Franco was efficient enough (84 pitches) to give us seven, which is big for our bullpen,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell. “He forced some early contact and early action. It was a gutsy effort.
“The guys in the bullpen have stepped it up. Buckelew has been one of our guys all year and Velez has settled in and become one of our guys. He has a good slider that protects his fastball, which he was able to throw by some guys today.”
NOTES: The homer by Rodriguez was his 11th while Davis hit his fourth … The win was the 40th of the season for the Hoppers, who have lost 68 … It also kept the BlueClaws from a three-game sweep … Tyler Kolek is scheduled to pitch Thursday as the Hoppers open a four-game series with Kannapolis … By the time that series is over, the Hoppers and Intimidators will have met 10 times in an 18-game stretch.