Bill Hass on Baseball:Santos, Hill, Mahoney lead Hoppers into tie for 1st

Santos, Hill, Mahoney lead Hoppers into tie for 1st
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball at

Offense from two improbable sources, plus solid pitching and defense, carried the Hoppers into a share of first place Sunday afternoon.

Jhonny Santos drove in five runs, Trenton Hill went 4-for-4 and scored three runs and Kolton Mahoney pitched seven strong innings to spur Greensboro past Hickory 5–2. The Hoppers have won the first three games of the series and moved into a first-place tie in the Northern Division of the SAL.

Technically, the Hoppers are in first place by percentage points. Their 31–23 record is .574 and Hickory’s 32–24 mark is .571. That would matter if the teams are tied at the end of the regular season because the standings are based on percentages, not games behind.

But everyone refers to games behind, and the teams are tied there. So whoever wins Monday’s “eclipse game”, with a starting time of 1:13 p.m., will be in first place by one game. Hagerstown and West Virginia, which both lost Sunday, are two games back.

“We try to keep them loose,” manager Todd Pratt said of his players. “You treat them like pros and they’ll act like pros. I have a lot of respect for these guys. They’re confident but not cocky.”

Santos has been excellent defensively and Saturday night helped the Hoppers win with a spectacular catch in center field. But he brought just a .173 average through 16 games into Sunday’s contest with no extra base hits and just two RBIs.

He followed form his first time up, flying out to right field. In the fourth inning, with two runners on base, Santos hit a well-placed line drive to right field that bounced fair and then rattled around in the Hickory bullpen as outfielder Eric Jenkins struggled to dig it out. Hill and Micah Brown scored to put the Hoppers in front 2–0 as Santos legged out a triple.

In the sixth, with two more runners aboard, Santos ripped a long drive to left field that went off the fence, despite a leaping effort by Blaine Prescott. Hill and Jarett Rindfleisch scored and Santos wound up with a double as the Hoppers took a 4–2 lead.

To cap his day, Santos delivered a sacrifice fly in the eighth inning to score Hill and make it 5–2. So Santos accounted for all five RBIs, he and Hill combined for six of the team’s nine hits, and Hill scored three of the five runs.

“I’m happy because I hadn’t been helping the team,” Santos said, with teammate Eric Gutierrez interpreting. “On the triple, I was just trying to put the ball in play. I got a good pitch away to hit and I put a good swing on it.

“The same thing on the double. I had two strikes and put a good swing on it. I thought it was going out (for a home run), but it brought the runs in. On the sacrifice fly, I was looking for something up that I could lift to bring in the run.

“I’m just here to play baseball, whether the team is in first place or last place.”
But it’s more fun when the team is in first place.

“We definitely know around the clubhouse (where we are in the standings),” Hill said. “We’re shooting to win it all, not just take second place and feel good about that.”

Hill couldn’t remember getting four hits in a game, even when he played at Lee University. Originally drafted as a pitcher in 2015, he became a position player at the Marlins’ suggestion. Now he’s thinking of himself more as a hitter.

“They worked with me for hours and hours,” he said. “I still think I could get people out, but I’m getting better as a hitter.”

Hill’s average had slipped to .239 after a good start, but it jumped to .272 after Sunday’s game. His first three hits went to almost the same spot in left field. The fourth single was a grounder up the middle that ricocheted off the second-base bag.

“The idea is for me to do my job and get on base, then let the next guy do his job,” Hill said.

Mahoney was well aware of the importance of the game but tried not to dwell on it.

“I’ve learned not to put too much pressure on myself,” he said. “I harnessed that energy toward my pitches and not into my mind.”

Mahoney’s “heavy sinker” was working well, and he induced two double plays to nip potential threats in the bud. His only hiccup came in the fifth, when he surrendered a two-run homer to Anderson Tejeda. He rebounded by striking out the next hitter to end the inning and had no trouble in the sixth or seventh innings.

“You can’t let stuff like that bother you,” he said of the homer. “I was upset, but I moved beyond that after watching him run around all four bases. I wasn’t going to let that happen again.”

Mahoney said it was one of his best outings, even with the one bad pitch and the fact that he didn’t have a good slider.

“It was a very clutch performance,” said pitching coach Mark DiFelice. “He’s been a valuable piece of our staff. He threw an inning in relief the other day and came back with seven innings today. He knows how to pace himself.”

In the eighth inning, Jared Lakind allowed a hit but then got a double play to keep Hickory at bay. It was his fourth straight outing without allowing a run.

Chad Smith, who had been pitching multiple innings lately, retired the side in order in the ninth, striking out the last two hitters. It was his first save since July 15 and sixth of the season.

The defense continued to shine, turning three double plays and almost getting another in an unconventional way. In the sixth inning, with Prescott on second base for Hickory with one out, Andretty Cordero grounded to shortstop Luis Pintor. He fielded it cleanly and noticed that Prescott had gone a little too far off the bag. Second baseman Cabrera saw the same thing, so Pintor whipped a throw to him and Cabrera tagged Prescott out. Cabrera then fired to first base but his throw was a hair off line and Cordero barely beat it.

“I almost saw a play I’ve never seen before,” said Pratt, who saw more than a few in his 14 years in the majors.
What he has seen this year, though, is a team that keeps grinding every game, something he instilled from the first day.

“They’re playing playoff baseball,” he said, “and it’s not affecting them. Now we just have to win tomorrow. We can’t let anything distract us, eclipse or not. We’ll be ready.”

NOTES: Brandon Miller will start the “eclipse game” … Outfielder Brian Miller singled in his last at-bat to get a hit on his 22nd birthday … The Hoppers added catcher Alex Jones, who was with them early in the year, and put catcher Jared Barnes on the Batavia roster … Hickory managed six hits and Hoppers pitching has held the Crawdads to 14 hits in the series … Greensboro leads the series 10–7 with five games remaining between the teams.