Bill Hass on Baseball:Hoppers draw within a game of first place

Hoppers draw within a game of first place
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball at

Todd Pratt won’t let the Hoppers rest on their laurels.

“We’re off to a great start in this series,” the manager said after Greensboro knocked off first-place Hickory 5–3 Saturday night. “But (Sunday) is another day and we have to win or tonight’s game didn’t mean anything.”

By winning their second straight over Hickory, the Hoppers moved within one game of the Crawdads in the Northern Division. Hickory’s record is 32–23 and Greensboro’s is 30–23. Hagerstown, which lost Saturday, is 29–24 and tied for third with West Virginia at 30–25. Fifteen games remain in the South Atlantic League season.

The upshot is that if the Hoppers beat Hickory in Sunday’s 4 p.m. game, the teams will be tied for first place.

Saturday’s win followed a familiar Hoppers script?—?solid pitching, tight defense and just enough offense. Brian Miller had three hits and drove in three runs as he raised his average to .326. The other two RBIs were provided by

Rony Cabrera, who hit a solo homer and drove in another with a single.

Cabrera is in his third tour of duty with the Hoppers, with several other stops along the way. Until Friday’s game against Hickory, he hadn’t hit a home run since the 2015 season. But he belted a solo shot and added another RBI in the Hoppers’ rain-delayed 11–0 rout.

Saturday, with the game tied 2–2, he yanked a home run to left field to give the Hoppers the lead in the seventh inning, then added an important insurance RBI in the ninth inning.

“I’m seeing better pitches to hit and putting a good swing on the ball when it’s in the zone,” he said, with teammate J.C. Millan translating. “I haven’t hit a home run for two years, so they really felt great.”

A utility infielder most of his career, Cabrera has settled into second base recently and delivered some excellent defense.

“He made a big-time turn on that double play in the ninth inning,” Pratt said.

With runners on first and third and no one out, third baseman Millan fielded a hard-hit ball by Hickory’s Blaine Prescott and fired to Cabrera, who pivoted and threw to first baseman Eric Gutierrez to complete the double play. The runner on third scored, but the Hoppers gladly traded the run for two outs.

Miller’s offense was timely, as usual. With the Hoppers down by two runs in the bottom of the fifth, his solid single up the middle scored Millan and Jhonny Santos to tie the game. In the ninth, he foiled Hickory’s strategy of bringing in a left-hander to pitch to him, delivering an infield hit that scored Santos for the Hoppers’ final run.

Santos provided the defensive gem of the game in the top of the sixth inning. Anderson Tejeda laced a drive to center field that had Santos and left fielder Aaron Knapp converging on it. Just as the ball reached the fence, Santos reached up and snagged it, saving at least a double and probably a home run.

“It was an awesome play,” Knapp said. “The ball was getting into no-man’s land. I thought I was going to call it, but then I heard Santos coming in and I knew he would make the play. I’m not sure if he went over the fence or not, but it was pretty cool to see.”

Even Santos wasn’t positive if he caught the ball above the fence or actually went over it and brought the ball back.

“That kind of play just happens,” he said, also with Millan translating. “I was right up against the fence and and was able to make a good catch.”

The pitching came through at the right times. Starter Max Duval wasn’t as sharp as his previous two outings, in which he allowed a total of one run and three hits in 14 innings, but he was good enough. He was touched for runs in the second and fifth innings, but battled his way out of a bases-loaded mess in the fourth with no damage.

Duval got the first two outs of the seventh inning, but was lifted after back-to-back singles. Kyle Keller quickly got the last out and then finished the game to earn the win.

“It was a great job by Duval giving us some innings,” Pratt said. “Keller did an outstanding job shutting them down and inducing that double play ball in the ninth inning.”

Pratt added that this team keeps winning because “we have interchangeable parts. There’s no superstar in that locker room. Everybody’s equal.”

Kolton Mahoney will be the Hoppers’ starter for Sunday’s game.