Mader’s pitching, Aper’s catch carry Hoppers
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball(Greensboro Grasshoppers) at www.gsohoppers.com
When Ryan Aper heard the sound of the ball coming off the bat, he figured it would be over his head.
“It was twilight and tough to see the ball,” said the Hoppers’ center fielder. “I broke back, saw the ball, got the trajectory down and took off running. I didn’t want to have to jump for it, but at the last second I knew I would. That’s the first time I’ve ever left my feet going back on a ball.”
Aper laid out and snagged the ball with a backhanded catch. After he got up, he was pounded by right fielder John Norwood and left fielder Zach Sullivan, then by the infielders as he ran to the dugout. Pitcher Michael Mader, who watched the play while backing up third base in case the ball fell in for a triple, also offered his congratulations.
“I gave him a nice handshake and a hug,” Mader said. “That was a phenomenal catch, one of the best I’ve ever seen. It saved us a run and it saved me some pitches.”
Here’s the context of the play. The Hoppers were leading 3-0 in the top of the seventh inning Friday in NewBridge Bank Park. There were two outs when Mader walked a batter, bringing Toby Thomas to the plate for Kannapolis. Thomas ripped the ball to center and it looked like the shutout was gone and Thomas would be in scoring position, but Aper’s play ended the inning.
“It was hands-down the best play I’ve seen this year,” said manager Kevin Randel. “It kept us rolling and energized everybody.”
The play allowed Mader to start the eighth inning. He gave up a leadoff single and got a flyout, but his pitch count was up to 98 (73 for strikes) and Randel signaled to the bullpen. Jose Velez entered and got a flyout and a strikeout to end the eighth and Kyle Fischer followed by pitching a one-two-three ninth to earn his eighth save and preserve the 3-0 win.
Aper, the team’s fourth outfielder, said he takes his defense seriously and practices reading the ball off the bat and taking good routes to the ball. He has played left field and right field this season but is a natural center fielder.
“The most important thing is to see my name in the lineup,” he said. “Making a catch like that is why you get out of bed every morning and go play the game.”
Although he has struggled offensively, Aper had a productive game. His double just inside the third base bag drove in a run in the fifth inning. He was one of two runners who scored on Zach Sullivan’s single to complete the three-run inning. Aper later added a second hit.
“It’s been a down year for me at the plate,” he said. “I’ve been working on my swing with Q (hitting coach Luis Quinones) and it paid off tonight.”
Mader was dominant in picking up his fifth win of the season. He used a quick tempo to his advantage and held Kannapolis to four hits. The key was getting first-pitch strikes on 24 of the 27 batters he faced.
“I’m a big rhythm guy,” Mader said. “They’re an aggressive lineup and I got ahead in the count and hit my spots. My last bullpen session I worked on my curve ball. It’s a ‘feel’ pitch and every time I’ve gone deep in a game this year I’ve had a curve.”
Pitching coach Jeremy Powell said this was the best he has seen Mader throw this year because he commanded his fastball, curve and changeup all for strikes.
“He kept them on their heels,” Powell said. “First-pitch strikes have been a thorn in his side but he has gotten better. He pitched above this level tonight and gave us a glimpse of what he know he can do.”
HOPPERS: The game was over in an hour and 51 minutes. It took just one hour to complete the first five innings … Sullivan, in left field, made a nice running, sliding catch to end the game … Third baseman Brian Schales, as usual, contributed some fine plays at the hot corner … Reliever Sam Alvis was promoted to Jupiter, so the Hoppers were a man short in the bullpen but should get a pitcher to replace him Saturday … Gabriel Castellanos will start for Greensboro in Saturday’s 7 o’clock game against the Intimidators.