Hoppers’ pitching causes Power outage
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball(Greensboro Grasshoppers at www.gsohoppers.com
Just when kt seemed the Hoppers’ pitching couldn’t get any better, it did.
L.J. Brewster and two relievers combined for a two-hit shutout Wednesday afternoon as the Hoppers rang up a 3-0 win over West Virginia at NewBridge Bank Park. The victory gave the Hoppers a three-game sweep of the Power, ran their winning streak to seven games and improved their second-half record to 11-3. That’s not only the best in the North Division, it’s the best in the South Atlantic League.
The Hoppers are now 49-35 for the season. Since they stumbled to a 12-24 start, they have played 48 games and won 37 of them, a winning percentage of .771.
Greensboro’s pitching dominated the series. In 27 innings, the Hoppers staff allowed three runs and just 10 hits. After giving up six hits Monday, they followed up with consecutive two-hitters. The Hoppers backed up their pitchers with excellent defense and just enough timely hits to provide three wins.
Brewster stepped into the rotation after the Marlins traded Chris Paddack, who had been overpowering in his six starts for the Hoppers. Brewster knew he couldn’t emulate Paddack and didn’t try. But, armed with a new pitch he learned about two weeks ago, he moved into the role with confidence.
“I love it,” he said after spending most of the season in the bullpen. “I did it in college, so I’m used to it.”
And the new pitch?
“They turned me into a sinkerball pitcher,” Brewster said. “Sags (pitching coach Brendan Sagara) has helped me a lot, teaching me how to keep the ball down. I throw it like a normal fastball but with a different grip that lets the seams take over.”
Sagara said the Marlins wanted Brewster to make the change, which not every pitcher can do.
“It’s a touch pitch, kind of like a quarterback throwing a fade pass,” Sagara said. “He’s made steady progress and now it’s pretty darn good. It’s a complete change for him but a good one and he’s comfortable with it. Today he had the hitters beat and he stayed with it.”
Brewster gave the Hoppers five innings, throwing just 57 pitches, and picked up his third win. He also lowered his ERA to 5.11, which doesn’t sound good until you consider it was 9.72 after his first couple of early outings from the bullpen.
The Power hitters beat the ball into the ground all day and Brewster recorded 11 groundouts. Shortstop Anfernee Seymour was especially busy, recording nine assists in the game.
“I’m not trying to overpower hitters,” Brewster said. “I want to force early contact and trust the defense. The infielders are playing lockdown defense right now.”
The Hoppers’ hitters couldn’t get anything going, despite getting the first two runners on base in the second and third innings and failing to score. But in the fourth, they broke through against West Virginia right-hander Gage Hinsz.
John Salviano opened with a long double and moved to third on a passed ball. Roy Morales and Isael Soto both grounded out against a drawn-in infield and Salviano had to hold at third. Then Justin Twine shot a perfectly-placed grounder that went just under the glove of the third baseman and past the lunging shortstop into left field to drive in the run.
Aaron Blanton then cracked a high fly that kept carrying to left center and cleared the fence for a two-run homer. It was his second homer and sixth RBI of the series. A tweak in his batting stance — spreading his feet wider to eliminate a leg kick — has made a difference.
“It lets me see the ball longer and adjust to whatever is coming,” Blanton said.
Even when he wasn’t swinging the bat well (he was at .139 11 games ago and now is at .193), Blanton flashed outstanding defense at third base.
“I’ve always had the defensive side,” he said. “I’ve mainly been a middle infielder but they switched me to third during my year at Batavia (in 2014).
Those three runs were all the Hoppers scored, but all they needed. Marcus Crescentini, appearing in his second game as a Hopper, got through the sixth and seventh innings with no trouble and Jose Quijada pitched the last two to earn his second save.
The eighth inning wasn’t easy for Quijada, a tough left-hander. He gave up a leadoff walk, got an out and then surrendered a single before buckling down to get two strikeouts. In the ninth, Blanton made a diving stop to his left, then scrambled up and threw out the leadoff hitter. Quijada got a strikeout and groundout to end the game.
“I’m a big fan of Quijada,” Sagara said. “I’m excited to see where he goes in the next few months and years.”
Manager Kevin Randel said the game “wasn’t pretty” and he could see the focus and energy of his team start to fade in the oppressive humidity of the day.
“We kept putting pressure on them and Twine picked us up, then Blanton hit the homer,” Randel said. “Brewster pounded the sinker and kept the game moving. I’m glad we stuck with it.”
The conditions got to Home plate umpire Sam Dodson in the bottom of the seventh inning in the middle of an at-bat by Seymour. Looking woozy, Dodson eventually had to leave the field and go to the umpires’ locker room. Base umpire Donnie Smith took over behind the plate and for the remainder of the game called balls and strikes plus all the plays in the field. Hoppers GM Donald Moore said Dodson was dehydrated but was OK after the game.
NOTES: Blanton drove in six of the Hoppers’ 10 runs in the series … Morales threw out Kannapolis runner Casey Hughston, who inexplicably tried to steal third base with two outs and the Intimidators top RBI man, Carlos Munoz, at the plate. Munoz drew a walk on the pitch but Morales’ perfect throw to Blanton nabbed Hughston to end the top of the fourth inning … Thursday night the Hoppers open a four-game series with Kannapolis … Steven Farnworth will pitch the opener for Greensboro … Former Hopper K.J. Woods will make his return to NewBridge Bank Park as a member of the Intimidators … Woods was released by the Marlins in June and signed by the White Sox, who sent him to Kannapolis … In his first 13 games Woods was hitting .255 with three homers and five RBIs.