Bill Hass on Baseball:Miller’s home debut helps Hoppers win

Miller’s home debut helps Hoppers win
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball at

Brian Miller didn’t let the situation overwhelm him Friday night.

With family, friends and former UNC-Chapel Hill teammates scattered around First National Bank Field, Miller gave everyone some things to cheer about as he helped the Hoppers to a 6–3 win over Asheville.

Growing up, the Raleigh native had watched games in Greensboro, as well as the nearby Carolina Mudcats and Durham Bulls.

“It doesn’t feel real yet,” Miller said. “I grew up watching those teams and now I’m playing for one of them. I’m just trying to take it one day at a time.”

That approach worked well Friday. Miller, the Marlins’ ?1 draft pick just three weeks ago, joined the Hoppers on the road at Lakewood, which has a large park and one of the best pitching staffs in the league. He got off to a 2-for-13 start before getting two hits in the final game of the series.

Installed as the leadoff hitter, Miller opened Friday’s game with a single up the middle, stole second base and scored on a single by Riley Mahan, the Marlins’ second-round pick.

“I did exactly what I wanted to do?—?stay through the ball and hit it up the middle,” Miller said. “I have the green light to run and this pitcher wasn’t super quick to the plate, so I got a good jump.”

Later, he added another hard-hit single that bounced off the leg of pitcher Antonio Santos and into foul territory. That set up a double steal, with Aaron Knapp taking third base and Miller swiping second. Knapp then scored on an infield hit by James Nelson.

All things considered?—?two hits, two stolen bases and a run scored?—?it was a good night for Miller and his fans.

“It was good to see everyone here,” he said, “and I appreciate their support. I really enjoyed the fans and the environment.”

Santos had dominated the Hoppers in a game on April 23, pitching six shutout innings while allowing three hits and striking out 11. This time, they touched him for 13 hits and scored in five of the six innings he pitched.

“We had a good approach at the plate tonight and good situational hitting,” said manager Todd Pratt.

Miller, Mahan, Nelson, Knapp and Eric Gutierrez each had two hits. Gutierrez had a long home run and a double and scored twice, Nelson had a triple and two RBIs and Knapp had an RBI triple.

For Gutierrez, his third homer of the season cleared Natty’s Hill in left field.

“I honestly don’t know,” Gutierrez replied when asked if that was as far as he could hit one. “I was trying for a line drive, I got a good pitch to hit and it ended up as a home run.”

With Miller and Mahan at the top of the order, Corey Bird, a .292 hitter, is batting eighth and Knapp ninth.

“That gives us back-to-back-to-back-to-back speed guys,” Pratt said. “We’re going to let (Miller and Mahan) play and so far, so good. They’re athletic and I think they’re just starting to get comfortable and adjusting to playing every day.”

The offense might have overshadowed the pitching but the Hoppers got a solid effort from starter Kolton Mahoney and relievers Michael Mertz and Reilly Hovis.

Mahoney, who gave up a two-run homer in the first inning. faced a bases-loaded situation with no one out in the third. A fielder’s choice scored a run but also got the first out. Mahoney then got a strikeout and popout to short-circuit what could have been a messy inning. He found a groove and retired 10 in a row before coming out in the sixth inning.

“He abandoned his two-seam fastball and went to the four-seamer,” said pitching coach Mark DiFelice. “That gave him better command. He’s an older guy (25) and experience is a true teacher. The biggest thing (in the bases-loaded situation) is not to panic.”

Mertz got the final out of the sixth inning on one pitch, pitched around two singles in the seventh and retired the side in order in the eighth.

That brought in Hovis for the ninth to protect a 6–3 lead and gave the Chapel Hill crowd (and Hovis’ parents from Gastonia) a bonus reason to cheer. When Hovis was a junior at UNC (he was injured and didn’t pitch), Miller was a freshman. He converted his first chance to earn a save this season.

After quickly disposing of the first two batters, Hovis got a ground ball that looked like the third out but was misplayed by Nelson for an error. Then a soft line drive fell just inside the left field foul line for a double.

Suddenly there were runners on second and third with two outs and the tying run at the plate.

But Hovis fired a third strike past Max George to end the game.

“It’s always fun to pitch when the team is winning,” Hovis said. “I noticed Mahoney and Mertz set (George) up with fastballs, so I credit them for that strikeout.”

NOTES: Ethan Clark, recently obtained by the Marlins in a trade that sent shortstop Adeiny Hechevarria to Tampa Bay, will make his Hoppers debut as the starter in Saturday’s game … Clark was 3–2 with a 3.11 ERA at Bowling Green in the Midwest League, which is the same Low A level as the South Atlantic League … L.J. Brewster will “piggyback” Clark after the fifth inning … Chad Smith, who hit 100 mph on the radar gun in a game at Hagerstown, will become the closer … Kyle Keller moves from closer to long man in the bullpen.