Bill Hass on Baseball:Hoppers’ bullpen virtually perfect

Hoppers’ bullpen virtually perfect
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball at

Which bullpen was going to blink first?

That was the question Monday night as relief pitcher after relief pitcher from Greensboro and Asheville mowed down opposing hitters for five and a half innings.

Finally, in the bottom of the 12th inning, the Hoppers’ J.C. Millan turned on a 1-and-2 fastball from the Tourists’ Heath Holder and drove it well over the fence in right center field. When Millan got to home plate, he received the dog-pile treatment from his teammates to celebrate the 4–3 win.

“I wasn’t trying for a home run,” Millan said. “As the leadoff hitter (in the inning), I was looking for a good pitch to drive and get on base. It was a cutter (a cut fastball), middle away.”

It was Millan’s first homer as a Hopper and the second of his young career. He hit one in Batavia before joining Greensboro last Wednesday. The Cuban native was playing in just his 42nd professional game since signing with the Marlins out of a two-year college in 2016. It has been a tough start here, and he’s now 4-for-25 as a Hopper.

“Millan has been struggling, but he came up big,” said manager Todd Pratt.

Trenton Hill, the pitcher-turned-first baseman who also joined the team Wednesday, also delivered his first homer, a solo shot in the sixth inning that tied the game 3–3. Like most of his five hits so far, it went to left field.

“That’s where I’m getting pitched,” the left-handed hitter said. “I’m trying to be on time (with his swing) and hit the ball where it’s pitched.”

Hill’s homer was the last hit by either team until Millan’s home run. Hoppers starter Kolton Mahoney and Asheville ace Alejandro Requena battled to a stalemate, each giving up three runs and seven hits in their six innings of work. Requena, who had won four straight starts, struck out six while Mahoney fanned eight.

The bullpens took over from there and the first five relievers who came in the game were virtually perfect. Asheville’s Matt Dennis, Julian Fernandez and Juan Pena threw five innings, allowed no hits and a single walk while striking out six. Fernandez issued the walk to the first batter he faced, Corey Bird, on four pitches. After that the flamethrower was untouchable, hitting 98 consistently on the scoreboard gun and registering 100 on his last pitch to strike out Rony Cabrera.

But the Hoppers’ Kyle Keller and Michael Mertz were just as good. Keller, consistently throwing in the mid-90s, pitched four innings and Mertz two and they allowed no hits or walks while striking out seven. Of their 64 combined pitches, 49 were strikes.

They faced the minimum 18 batters in their six innings. The only blemish was when Keller hit Asheville’s Max George with one out in the 10th inning. When George tried to steal second (Asheville leads the SAL in stolen bases), he was thrown out by catcher Jarett Rindfleisch, with shortstop Luis Pintor taking the throw and making the tag.

Keller began the season as a short man in the bullpen and recorded eight saves. He was switched to a long role a couple of weeks ago and four innings was his longest stint.

“I’ve don’t think I’ve thrown that long since college,” Keller said. “I kind of knew I was going to pitch today, so I prepared all day. My role doesn’t really matter. The second inning or the ninth, I’m always ready. At the end of the day, it’s all about pitching.”

Mertz, who was the winning pitcher, has been the team’s jack-of-all-trades. He leads the staff in appearances with 29, has pitched in all kinds of situations, earned two saves and even made a spot start. Like Keller, he’ll take the ball whenever he’s asked.

“I’ve been in that situation before, where both sides were really rolling and in a good rhythm,” he said. “You don’t want to be the pitcher to give up a run.”

Pitching coach Mark DiFelice praised the work of his two relievers.

“That’s exactly what you want at the back end of the pen,” he said. “They were efficient and attacking the strike zone.

“Keller had only thrown 33 pitches in three innings, so we gave him a fourth. He was pitching with conviction. He brings a lot of energy with a quick pace and good tempo. Mertz has pitched in games early, in the middle innings and late. Every staff needs someone like that.”

The 12 innings were completed in just under three hours, a testament to the pace of all the pitchers. It was an important bounce-back game for the Hoppers after Sunday’s collapse following a rain delay in which they wound up losing 10–4.

“It was very important to get our morale going and momentum swinging our way again,” Mertz said.

The teams wind up the series with a noon game Tuesday. Ethan Clark will start for the Hoppers as they try to split the four-game set.

NOTES: Brian Miller had a pair of doubles and scored twice and Corey Bird had two RBIs … Walker Olis added two hits … The pitchers combined for 27 strikeouts, 15 by the Hoppers … Dylan Lee, Sunday’s starter, experienced elbow soreness after that game and is heading to the Marlins’ complex in Jupiter to be examined … For now, it’s being called a flexor strain and he’s likely to go on the disabled list … Newly-acquired Brandon Miller will move into the rotation and will start the first game of a road series at Delmarva on Thursday.