Naylor’s early lightning bolt propels Hoppers
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball(Greensboro Grasshoppers) at www.gsohoppers.com
Jagged lightning danced in the dark sky behind the outfield fences starting about midway through Friday night’s game at NewBridge Bank Park.
But the biggest bolt of the night came off the bat of Josh Naylor in the bottom of the first inning.
After Anfernee Seymour drew a walk and Justin Twine singled against Hickory left-hander Wes Benjamin, Naylor drove a pitch far over the right-field netting for a three-run homer. Several observers said they believed it carried across Eugene Street.
“He got into that one,” said manager Kevin Randel.
The homer changed the nature of the game. The Crawdads had scored twice in the top of the first, but one swing put the Hoppers on top 3-2. Oddly, that’s where the score stayed the rest of the way as the Hoppers moved to 2-0 in the South Atlantic League’s second half and 40-32 overall.
“That inning was a big answer for us,” Randel said. “Early in the year we weren’t doing that. Now, when the other team scores, we come back and put some crooked numbers on the board.”
Naylor, a left-handed hitter, went into the game with an average of .145 against lefties.
“I’ve been getting away from my swing against left-handers, committing too early,” Naylor said. “It helped that I pretty much knew what was coming. It was a slider that hung a lot and I stayed back on it.”
It was Naylor’s eighth homer of the year and increased his RBI total to 43.
From there, pitching took over as Benjamin settled down and allowed no more runs through five innings, striking out eight. Chuck Weaver of the Hoppers, a little rusty from a six-day layoff, wasn’t sharp early and went to a lot of three-ball counts. Then he improved his efficiency and completed six innings.
“Starters have to keep themselves in the game and he did,” said pitching coach Brendan Sagara. “He found a way to stick around and give us the six innings we needed.”
The third inning was the key for Weaver. Dylan Moore led off with a triple and wound up being stranded. Weaver got one out with a fly ball to center that Zach Sullivan pulled in and, with momentum carrying him forward, uncorked a good throw to home plate. Moore went well down the line, then retreated to the base.
Aaron Blanton then stabbed a hard grounder at third base. He could have taken an easy out at home plate but decided to try for two. He pegged a good throw to Justin Twine at second base for one out and Twine made a nice pivot and threw to first to complete the “around-the-horn” double play and end the inning. Blanton’s play atoned for his error that led to an unearned run in the first inning.
Weaver threw three more innings without incident and picked up the win to move his record to 7-4.
Andy Beltre followed and was also rusty, issuing walks in the seventh and eighth innings. Randel decided to go with closer C.J. Robinson with two outs and a runner on base in the eighth.
“You won’t see that in the major leagues,” Sagara said, “but in Class A ball We need to do that now and then for his development.”
Robinson is used to getting multiple outs because he’s been a middle-innings reliever most of his career. He got the final out of the eighth on a ground ball and struck out the first batter in the ninth. For the second out, Seymour made a good stop in the hole at shortstop and a strong throw that Naylor stretched and snagged at first base.
After giving up a single and then throwing two balls to the next hitter, Robinson gathered himself and finished the game with a strikeout.
“I was nibbling too much, trying to be too cute instead of trusting my fastball and getting them to swing,” Robinson said. “So I stepped off the mound, took a deep breath and focused on the next pitch.”
Robinson got the save in the SAL All-Star game on Tuesday. Friday’s save was his 12th in 12 opportunities this season. He said he tries to keep things simple and not over-think on the mound.
“I really like it,” he said about closing. “It allows me to stay in a routine. Before, I could go into a game anywhere from the fifth to the eighth inning. Now it’s usually in the ninth, when my team has the lead. I don’t have to rush to get ready and that gives me time to clear my mind.”
The teams play the third game of the series Saturday at 7 p.m. The Hoppers’ starter will be Chris Paddack, who has not allowed a hit over 10 innings in his last two starts.
NOTES: Former Hopper K.J. Woods, who hit 18 homers and drove in 58 runs here last year, is now with the Kannapolis Intimidators … Woods started this season in Jupiter but hit only .155 in 24 games with two homers and seven RBIs … The Marlins put him on the Batavia roster, then released him because, as one source told me, they were tired of dealing with his “personal issues” … Woods, a fourth-round draft pick in 2013, won’t turn 21 until July 9, so the Chicago White Sox felt there was time for him to salvage his career … Kannapolis will play the Hoppers July 7-10 in NewBridge.