Hoppers face intriguing second half
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball(Greensboro Grasshoppers) at www.gsohoppers.com…
Back to 0-0.
That’s how the Hoppers will begin the second half of the South Atlantic League season Thursday night when they begin a four-game series with Hickory at NewBridge Bank Park.
Some people think of the second half as a clean slate, but it’s really not. Only the team’s record is affected. Individual statistics will continue to accumulate and players now have half a season under their belts.
The split season gives teams who didn’t win the first half a chance to qualify for the playoffs by winning the second half. Because rosters can turn over significantly, it’s possible for teams that were below .500 in the first half to improve their talent and win the second half.
Still, some managers don’t care for the split season format. Former Hoppers skipper Andy Haines believed that everyone should play 140 games and see who’s the best over the long haul. Current manager Kevin Randel, who was Haines’ hitting coach, would prefer that, too.
“You don’t hit the reset button,” Randel said after the Hoppers recently wrapped up their last home stand. “Right now we’re playing good ball and I think that’s exactly how we’ll play the rest of the way. I’m looking for us to play competitive baseball and keep games close so you always have a chance.”
Momentum is a fickle thing in baseball, so there’s the question of how much the Hoppers’ good finish to the first half will help them.
“Our goal is to keep playing strong and have it carry over for the second half,” said outfielder Zach Sullivan, and that was typical of most players.
Hagerstown won the North and Charleston took the South to earn playoff berths. But as the first half ended, the Hoppers were the hottest team in the league.
After a miserable 12-24 start, the Hoppers dramatically turned things around to finish 38-32. In the final 34 games of the half, they went 26-8. Delmarva had the next best record in that stretch at 22-12. Hagerstown, Charleston and Augusta each won 20 games.
The biggest improvement has been their hitting. The Hoppers are averaging .242 as a team, tied for 11th among 14 team, and their 30 homers rank last. But it took them several games to climb over .100 and then .200 in team batting average and more than two weeks to hit their first home run. Since that start, their numbers are pretty good.
Shortstop Anfernee Seymour is one example. After struggling early, his current seven-game hitting streak has helped pull his average to .283. He’s hitting .358 in his last 30 games and .397 in June as he learns to use his speed on bunts and to slap hits through holes in the infield.
Second baseman Justin Twine, who didn’t join the team until May, also has a seven-game streak He’s up to .261 and is hitting .304 in June. Twine has made a good transition from short to second and is showing more a bit more discipline at the plate. He’s drawn 10 walks in 37 games after walking just six times in more than 100 games last season.
Sullivan, also repeating this level, looks like a different player. After hitting below .200 with only 10 extra-base hits and 21 RBIs in 2015, he’s up to .257 with 20 extra-base hits and 26 RBIs in the first half.
The club’s hottest hitter has been Angel Reyes, now up to .306 with two homers and 29 RBIs. Reyes is hitting .393 in the last 30 games and a robust .423 so far in June.
Outfielder Kyle Barrett, who filled in nicely when Isael Soto was on the DL, is hitting .333 in June and in his last 30 games.
Those players need to keep that up, which won’t be easy when the dog days of mid-July and August hit. That’s when the heat and humidity, plus the cumulative effects of a long season, can affect anyone.
First baseman Josh Naylor, last year’s No.1 draft pick by the Marlins, had an OK first half, hitting .256 with seven homers and 38 RBIs. Naylor, who turned 19 today, was just 2-for-19 when he came off a suspension, but he went 4-for-9 in the Hoppers’ last two games of the half. His power would be a big asset in the second half.
The pitching carried the club in the first half, particularly yeoman’s work by the bullpen with most starters pitching limited innings. Ben Holmes and Scott Squier were stellar before they earned promotions to Jupiter. C.J. Robinson stepped into the closer’s role and recorded 11 saves in 11 opportunities. Jeff Kinley won five games in relief after joining the club.
The starting rotation has been in flux with injuries and pitch counts. Cody Poteet hasn’t missed a start and, although he’s won just three games, has posted a 2.48 ERA. Chuck Weaver, the 25-year-old from independent ball, has been an anchor with a 6-4 record and 2.63 ERA.
Then there’s Chris Paddack, the 20-year-old right-hander drafted out of high school last year. He was supposed to break camp with the Hoppers but was held back with some soreness and didn’t join the team until May. He has been spectacular in the five games he’s started, winning twice with a 1.16 ERA. In his last two starts, covering 10 innings (it’s likely he’ll be limited to five innings per start), Paddack has not allowed a hit.
Everyone in the lineup made important contributions to the Hoppers’ strong first-half finish. How many other teams had two position players record pitching wins? Aaron Blanton and Giovanny Alfonzo did that when pressed into service in extra-inning games, and Alfonzo added a save.
Randel hopes he doesn’t get into a situation like that again. Regardless, there are intriguing ingredients on hand for the next 70 games.
ALL-STAR GAME: The North took a 2-1 win from the South Tuesday in Lexington, Ky. Hagerstown’s Max Schrock went 2-for-3 and drove in both of the North’s runs to earn the MVP Award. The Hoppers had two participants — Isael Soto went 1-for-2 and C.J. Robinson earned the save by retiring the South in order in the bottom of the 9th inning. Greensboro native Josh Tobias of Lakewood went 1-for-2.