Blanton gives Hoppers a tingling feeling
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball(Greensboro Grasshoppers) at www.gsohoppers.com
The setting was perfect.
It was July 4, with 9,559 fans packed into NewBridge Bank Park, voices in full throttle. Two outs, bottom of the ninth, a 2-2 game with the winning run on second base. Aaron Blanton stepped into the batter’s box with a chance to produce a win for the Hoppers.
Sean Keselica, a tough left-handed relief pitcher for West Virginia, had made Blanton look bad back in the seventh inning, striking him out with the go-ahead run on third base. A single probably would have done the job in the ninth; a double certainly would have.
Instead, when Blanton saw the pitch he was expecting, he got around on it and drove the ball high toward left field. The only question was whether it would stay fair. There was a momentary pause as the crowd waited, then the home plate umpire circled his right hand in the home run signal.
And just like that, the three-run homer gave the Hoppers a 5-2 win before their largest crowd of the season.
“I felt a tingling when the ball was up in the air,” Blanton said. “I was watching it all the way. I saw the (left fielder) go back and look up and I knew it was gone.”
It was the first walk-off homer Blanton had ever hit at any level of baseball. Although he has been a superb defensive player at third base this season, he has struggled at the plate. Over the last 10 games, however, he has hit .324 and pulled his average up from a paltry .139 to .181.
Keselica had little difficulty with the Hoppers in the seventh and eighth innings and struck out the first hitter he faced in the ninth. Then Angel Reyes singled and, after Isael Soto struck out, Roy Morales kept things alive with another single. That brought up Blanton, who learned something from his first time facing Keselica.
“He threw me all sliders and curves,” Blanton said. “I remembered the way his ball was moving and I knew he was going to make me defeat him with the same pitch. He threw a slider, a little lower than before, and I knew I had to catch it in front of the plate. The outfielders were playing in a little and I had to put it over their heads to assure a run scoring.”
As manager Kevin Randel explained, there’s an advantage to the hitter in seeing a relief pitcher a second time.
“Relievers pitch to their strength,” Randel said. “Blanton went out and got that pitch and got us home, thank goodness.”
Randel’s reference was to the fact that no one wanted to go to extra innings. The Hoppers had finished a road game at Lakewood late Sunday, then ridden nine-plus hours on the bus and arrived at the park about 8:30 a.m.
“The sun’s up and you know you have to grab some sleep and be back at the field in a couple of hours,” Randel said. “It’s just one of those days you have to endure about once a month. I told the players there would be about 10,000 people who didn’t know how tired they were. I thought we showed a lot of grit.”
Blanton’s feat carried the Hoppers to their fifth straight win and they’re 9-3 in the second half of the SAL season, leading the North Division by two games. The Hoppers need to win the second half to secure a spot in the playoffs.
For six innings the Hoppers couldn’t muster much offense, but they broke through in the seventh. Josh Naylor singled and went to third on Soto’s double and both scored on a base hit by Morales to tie the game 2-2.
“I was just doing my job,” Morales said. “Naylor and Soto did great jobs getting on base. I just wanted to put the ball in play and give the runners a chance to score.”
On the pitching side, starter Cody Poteet didn’t have anywhere near his best stuff. He gave up two hits and walked four yet somehow battled his way through five scoreless innings, relying mostly on his off-speed stuff.
“It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t pretty,” said pitching coach Brendan Sagara, “but he pitched with what he had. It’s good for a pitcher to learn how to pitch in those situations.”
As Poteet worked to get out of the fifth inning with a runner on second and two outs, Randel paid a visit to the mound, which usually means a change of pitchers.
“I told him he had four pitches left,” Randel said, “and he used three (getting a fielder’s choice to end the inning). He found a way, and that shows you what kind of (competitor) he is.”
Ryley MacEachern was tagged for a run in each of the sixth and seventh innings. Kyle Keller worked around his own two-base throwing error by getting a strikeout to end the eighth. He then got out of the ninth, aided by an excellent sprinting catch by center fielder Zach Sullivan, despite giving up a single, a wild pitch and a walk. Keller wound up the winning pitcher.
The teams play the second game of the series Tuesday at 7 p.m. Chuck Weaver will start for the Hoppers.