Bill Hass on Baseball:Velez nails down 7-6 win for Hoppers

Velez nails down 7-6 win for Hoppers
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball(Greensboro Grasshoppers) at

Jose Velez always tries to find something positive in a negative situation.

Saturday night, the Hoppers’ left-hander took the mound to start the ninth inning against Kannapolis. With Greensboro leading 7-6, it was his first save opportunity of the season.

“I hadn’t been in that situation since last year,” Velez said. “It was a one-run game, which added even more pressure, and a big crowd (7,841). My adrenaline was up there. I told myself to get the first hitter, that was the important one.”

Instead, Louie Lechich grounded a single up the middle, putting even more pressure on Velez. The Intimidators chose to sacrifice Lechich to second, giving Velez one out. Still, it was a spot Velez might have folded. But he responded by striking out Ryan Leonards and getting Toby Thomas to hit a grounder to shortstop Rony Cabrera. The throw to first was a little low and wide, but K.J. Woods stretched to his left to catch it and kept his foot on the bag for the out to end the game.

“That strikeout (of Leonards) got me amped up,” Velez said. “On the last batter, I wanted to keep the ball low and he hit the grounder to Rony. It was real emotional for me when he threw (Thomas) out.”

Velez is grateful for an opportunity to pitch. He spent part of 2013 and all of 2014 with the Evansville Otters in the independent Frontier League. The Minnesota Twins signed him and he began 2015 with their Fort Myers team in the Florida State League, then moved to Cedar Rapids in the Midwest League. And then he got released.

“They told me there wasn’t room (in their farm system) for me because they had some guys coming back from rehab,” Velez said. “But they told me not to stop pitching. It motivated me to find another team and I was going to return to independent ball to stay in shape. But the Marlins called me after about a week-and-a-half.”

Velez was sent to Greensboro, where he gave up a run in one inning in his first game and then six runs in one inning in his second appearance.

“I was mentally down,” he said. “That wasn’t me. I had never had an outing that bad in my life. I talked to my family and they said I should bounce back and send a message. I want them to be proud of me, so I do it for them. So I took some positives out of it. Every time I pitch I go all out. I want to battle hard and have no excuses.”

In 13 appearances since the awful one, Velez has allowed just one run while giving up 10 hits, striking out 24 and walking just two. He had pitched Friday, getting two quick outs to close out the eighth inning.

“We knew he could give us an inning,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell of the decision to use him in a save situation. “He’s done great in a back-end role for us. He’s consistent and has been a good addition here.”

Starter Gabriel Castellanos muddled through four innings, giving up six runs (two unearned). But after surrendering four runs in the first and two in the second, he managed to put zeroes up in the third and fourth. From there, the bullpen pitched shutout ball — 2 2/3 innings by Kyle Fuller, who got the win; 1 1/3 from Ryan Hafner and one by Velez.

“The bullpen really set up good,” Powell said. “Fuller giving us (nearly) three innings was huge.”

The offense did its part, getting back two runs in the bottom of the first and three in the second on K.J. Woods’ 16th homer of the season. That cut it to 6-5 and two runs in the sixth made the difference.

The sixth was a strange inning. Zach Sullivan led off with a double and Mason Davis doubled him in to tie the game. Cabrera struck out but was safe at first when Kannapolis catcher Ryan Plourde’s throw was wild, with Davis moving to third. Woods followed with a strikeout on a wild pitch but the ball bounced so far away that Davis scored the go-ahead run.

“It might not have been pretty, but it got the job done,” Woods said of that at-bat.

Woods had been hit by a pitch from Kannapolis starter Luis Martinez in the first inning, but he wasn’t looking for revenge when he hit his home run.

“I know those guys,” he said of Kannapolis, “and (Martinez) can be a little wild. I picked out my pitch and was able to drive it. I had been hitting the ball hard recently with nothing to show for it and the coaches said to just keep swinging and don’t let it get me down.”

Woods said he has worked hard to improve his play around first base, which helped him make the final play. He didn’t look to see the umpire’s call.

“Rony had to get it there and I had to catch it,” Woods said. “I planted my foot on the bag, so I knew he was out.”

Manager Kevin Randel said “that comes from reps and getting his work in. He won’t ask for extra ground balls, but if you drag him out there he’ll give you all he’s got.”

NOTES: The teams wrap up the series Sunday at 4 p.m. … Jorgan Cavanerio was the scheduled starter but has been sent to Double-A Jacksonville, so someone from the bullpen will make a spot start … Felix Castillo had a two-run single, John Norwood had three hits and Davis and Sullivan each had two hits and scored two runs.