Smith’s HR, Mader’s pitching carry Hoppers
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball(Greensboro Grasshoppers) at www.gsohoppers.com
It was a long time between home runs for the Hoppers’ Austen Smith, but he remembered the last one he had hit prior to Tuesday’s game at NewBridge Bank Park.
“It was at home about two months ago,” Smith said. “It feels like seven years ago.”
Smith hit his 13th homer of the season on July 7 against Hickory. His 14th came 38 games later against Greenville, a two-run shot in the second inning that helped propel the Hoppers to a 5-1 victory that ended a seven-game losing streak.
It was also encouraging that Smith didn’t hit a fastball for the homer. He has struggled with breaking balls and off-speed pitches but found one to his liking this time.
“It was a changeup,” he said. “I’ve been seeing those better lately. Off the bat I knew it had a chance.”
Smith’s homer would be all the support needed for starter Michael Mader, who allowed one run in seven innings and picked up his sixth win of the season. All of them have come at home, where he has lost only once. On the road, Mader is 0-10.
“It’s a stumper,” he said of the disparity. “I can’t explain it. I feel very comfortable at home and lately I’ve noticed how much better my record is here.”
The performance was no surprise to pitching coach Jeremy Powell.
“We’ve seen it before,” Powell said. “It’s a matter of consistency.”
Powell said Mader threw his breaking ball and changeup for strikes early in the game, which set up his fastball after the first time through the Greenville lineup.
“They’re aggressive,” Mader said of Greenville’s hitters. “I felt I had a good changeup and curve ball early and they were missing it pretty badly, so I kept throwing it. Then I was able to use the fastball and get them out with the third or fourth pitch.”
Mader, working at his usual quick pace, threw 85 pitches, 57 of them for strikes. Relieving him to start the eighth was Leurys De La Rosa, who arrived three hours before game time from the Gulf Coast League to bolster the Hoppers’ bullpen. Using the same quick tempo as Mader, De La Rosa gave up a double to the first hitter he faced, then retired the next six batters to finish the game, throwing 20 of 27 pitches for strikes.
The Hoppers had used four relievers for two innings each in Monday’s 13-inning loss, so the bullpen was thin and De La Rosa provided a big lift.
“He did a great job when we needed it,” Powell said. “After that double, he retired the next six pretty easily. He threw strikes with a good slider.”
The Hoppers didn’t have a big night offensively, but three of their six hits figured in the scoring. Along with Smith’s homer, Arturo Rodriguez hit a solo homer and Justin Twine drove in a run with a solid double in the gap in right-center. Twine added another RBI with a deep sacrifice fly to score Rony Cabrera.
“That’s one of the better games I’ve seen Twine at bat,” said manager Kevin Randel.
Smith also contributed a nice sliding catch of a line drive to left field. It was his 34th game in the outfield this season, although he’s not a total novice.
“I played there in high school and some my freshman year in college (Alabama),” he said. “Left field isn’t that difficult to play. The ball was hit by a left-hander (to the opposite field) and I knew it would be tailing away. I think it’s the second or third sliding catch I’ve made.”
Asked which was more satisfying, Smith said “definitely the homer. The past three or four games I’ve been getting my offensive rhythm back.”
Perhaps Smith is starting to regain some of the form that enabled him to hit .270 with 11 homers and 32 RBIs in the first half of the season, good enough to make the SAL All-Star game.
“He’s not where he was,” Randel said. “But he had a good series in Savannah (3-for-8) and it’s good to see him squaring up some balls. Maybe launching one will help get him going.”
The teams wrap up the series Wednesday with a 4 p.m. game. Jorgan Cavanerio will start for the Hoppers.