Bill Hass on Baseball:Hoppers remain alive despite being swept

Hoppers remain alive despite being swept
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball at

It was a bad day for a collective hitting swoon.

Hickory dealt Greensboro a setback in the SAL Northern Division race, sweeping a doubleheader Wednesday afternoon, 3–2 and 4–1. Fortunately for the Hoppers, first-place Hagerstown also lost a doubleheader, 4–1 and 10–1 to Kannapolis.

Here’s the upshot of Wednesday’s results. The Suns remain in first place with a 37–28 record. Kannapolis vaults over Greensboro into second place with a 35–28 mark, one game behind Hagerstown. The Hoppers are third at 35–29, 1 1/2 games behind the Suns and a game behind Kannapolis. And Lakewood is still in the mix at 35–30, two games out of first place.

Greensboro and Lakewood each have four games remaining while Hagerstown and Kannapolis have five. The Suns and Intimidators play a second straight doubleheader on Thursday.

The Hoppers’ elimination number is three—meaning they will be eliminated with any combination of Hagerstown wins and Greensboro losses totaling three. The elimination number for both Kannapolis and Lakewood is four.

So the Hoppers have their work cut out. Essentially they need to sweep their last four games?—?Hickory Thursday and then three games with Delmarva?—?to have a chance. And now they must climb over both Kannapolis and Hagerstown to do it.

Even a split Wednesday would have helped the Hoppers tremendously. But Hickory just didn’t let that happen, holding them to three runs and 10 hits for the combined 14 innings.

“We had no offense,” said manager Todd Pratt. “Michael King pitched a great game (in the opener) but got no offensive support today.”

And home runs, which have plagued the pitching staff all season, especially at First National Bank Field, contributed to the sweep. Hickory hit two solo shots in the first game and a three-run blast that provided the difference in the second game.

“They were Greensboro home runs, both fence-scrapers,” Pratt said of the pair in the first game.

It looked like a good scenario for Greensboro entering the doubleheader. Hickory had the worst record in the Northern Division and just a 3–5 record against the Hoppers. The Crawdads’ starters, Edgar Arredondo and Sal Mendez, both came in with ERAs over 5.00.

But each pitched extremely well. Arredondo allowed two runs (only one earned) and four hits in 5 2/3 innings. Mendez was even better, stopping Greensboro on five hits and one run in five innings.

The Crawdads’ left-handed pitchers were especially tough on the Hoppers’ lineup laden with left-handed hitters. In the first game, left-handed reliever Nick Dignacco faced four batters and struck them all out.

In the second game, the Hoppers couldn’t do much with Mendez or reliever C.D. Pelham, both left-handers, who combined for 10 strikeouts. Altogether, the three lefties combined to face 34 Greensboro hitters and recorded 14 strikeouts.

“Hickory has prospects, too,” Pratt said. “You have to credit their pitchers.”

And they stymied the Hoppers’ offense. James Nelson had a triple in the first game and an RBI double in the second, the only extra-base hits Greensboro had all day. Boo Vazquez had a single in each game and Aaron Knapp came out of a 2-for-36 slump by going 3-for-5.

King gave up a run in the first inning of the opener, with the help of an error by Nelson. He then found a groove, retiring 10 straight batters. In the fourth inning, as he was about to deliver a pitch, home plate umpire John Budka Jr. called time out. King said something to Budka, then surrendered a solo homer to Ti’Quan Forbes and had a further conversation with the umpire.

“I don’t know that it made a difference,” Pratt said of the time out. “King said (Forbes) hit a good pitch.”

In the second game, the Hoppers pieced together a run in the third inning on a single by Luis Pintor and Nelson’s one-out double. But the offense failed to move Nelson in to score. The Hoppers loaded the bases with two outs in the fourth inning but Corey Bird grounded out to end the threat.

Nick Neumann, who joined the staff on the road swing to West Virginia, made a spot start in the second game and gave the Hoppers four shutout innings. Parker Bugg pitched the fifth and was rocked for four runs, including a three-run homer by Jose Almonte. That wiped out a 1–0 Hoppers lead.

NOTES: Dustin Beggs will start Thursday’s game … In the Delmarva series, which wraps up the first half of the season, the Hoppers’ scheduled starters are Dylan Lee Friday, Kolton Mahoney Saturday and L.J. Brewster Sunday … Neumann began the season in Jupiter and struggled there … He was sent to the Hoppers in part because pitching coach Mark DiFelice had him for two seasons in the Pittsburgh system.