Bill Hass on Baseball:Hoppers use familiar formula in 3–2 win

Hoppers use familiar formula in 3–2 win
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball at

The Hoppers followed their favorite formula Monday night to beat the Lakewood BlueClaws 3–2.

“It’s the same old story?—?pitching, defense and grinding out hits,” summed up manager Todd Pratt.

The Hoppers won their third straight and sixth in their last seven games. Each of the victories has been by one run.

“It definitely gives you confidence,” Pratt said of winning that many close games. “It’s something we’ve been doing since the first week of the season. This team plays all nine innings.”

The result moved the Hoppers’ record to 19–16 in the second half of the SAL season. Four teams are bunched within one game of each other in the Southern Division. Hagerstown is 20–15 and in first place by percentage points over Hickory at 21–16. Delmarva is one-half game back at 20–16, followed by the Hoppers, who are a game out of first.

Monday’s game ended with a sparkling defensive play in the top of the ninth and the Hoppers protecting their one-run lead. Evan Beal quickly got the first two outs but surrendered a double to Jesus Alastre. Daniel Brito followed with a single to right field.

The ball was hit hard and right fielder Jhonny Santos came up with it quickly and fired home to catcher Jarett Rindfleisch. Lakewood manager and third base coach Marty Malloy held Alastre at third base.

As Alastre rounded third and stopped, Brito kept going around first. Rindfleisch pegged a perfect throw to shortstop Luis Pintor covering second base. Brito, who was going to be out by several feet, tried to reverse course back to first, but stumbled and was tagged out by Pintor to end the game.

“Santos stayed down on the ball, then threw a missile,” Pratt said. “Rindfleisch did a great job and then threw a strike (to Pintor).”

Rindfleisch said Santos made a good throw that would have gotten Alastre at the plate if he had been waved home.

“My vision was to the left to see if the runner was coming home,” Rindfleisch said, “and he shut down early. “I saw (Brito) go and I knew I had a chance to throw him out.”

That was the defensive highlight. As for the offense, the Hoppers could muster only two hits and one walk through the first five innings off Lakewood starter Adonis Medina.

But in the sixth, Pintor was hit by a pitch and Walker Olis singled. James Nelson doubled off the wall in right center field to score Pintor and send Olis to third. Trenton Hill then doubled into the left field corner to drive in two runs and give the Hoppers the lead.

“We made some adjustments against Medina,” Pratt said. “Nelson got that big hit in the gap and I think the pitcher was a little shell-shocked. He started throwing more breaking balls and Hill got one that broke it open.”

Greensboro starter Ethan Clark gave up an unearned run in the second inning and an earned run in the third. He got through the fourth with no problem, but when he gave up back-to-back walks in the fifth with one out, Pratt waved in Michael Mertz.

With runners on first and second and one out, Mertz went to work, getting two ground ball outs to end the inning. He put himself in a tough situation in the sixth by giving up a single, a wild pitch and a walk, but got out of that with another ground ball. He then sailed through the seventh and eighth innings, retiring all six batters he faced.

“Mertz’s job all year has been as a cleanup guy,” Rindfleisch said. “That’s what he loves; that’s his mentality. He has no fear.”

Mertz said he enjoys the pressure of entering a game with runners on base.

“It’s fun to get out of it and help out our starting pitcher,” he said. “I started missing with my fastball (in the sixth inning) but was able to make an adjustment. Then I got in a good rhythm with Rindfleisch. He put down the sign and I threw the ball where he wanted it.”

Mertz got the victory, his third in this streak by the Hoppers. His record now stands at 7–1 and his ERA is 1.99.

“We’ve been putting him in those situation since early in the season,” said pitching coach Mark DiFelice. “It’s good for his confidence and his experience. When those situations come up in the big leagues, he’ll know how to respond.”

The teams play the second game of the three-game series Tuesday night. Newly-acquired Brandon Miller will start for the Hoppers. He’ll face Alejandro Requena, who will be facing Greensboro for the fourth time this season. The first three were with Asheville, including a game eight days ago. Requena wound up with Lakewood as part of a trade involving Colorado and Philadelphia.

NOTES: Santos made another fine play in the fifth inning when he threw out Alastre trying to stretch a single into a double … Beal, another recent addition, wound up with his first save for the Hoppers … Center fielder Brian Miller, hitting .415 in his last 10 games, was given the night off.