Bill Hass on Baseball:Nine-run lead evaporates in Hoppers’ loss

Nine-run lead evaporates in Hoppers’ loss
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball at….

There’s no way to sugarcoat Wednesday night’s game for the Hoppers.

They jumped on Kannapolis for a 9–0 lead after three innings, then surrendered 13 straight runs and eventually wound up losing 13–11.

“Give credit to their hitters,” said Greensboro manager Todd Pratt of Kannapolis. “They’re a good team and they didn’t give up. Both teams battled hard and we ended up on the short end. That’s a tough one.”

When all the results were in from Wednesday’s games, things got more complicated in the Northern Division of the South Atlantic League. While the Hoppers lost their fourth straight game, once again they didn’t lost any ground to Hickory, which lost its third straight and remains a game in front.

The complication comes from West Virginia, which swept a doubleheader from Lakewood and surged into a first-place tie with Hickory. Both teams are 36–29 while Greensboro is 34–29.

“I don’t care how many other teams are tied for first place,” Pratt said. “Our approach has been one game at a time since Day One. I don’t watch the scoreboard. I know we lost tonight. We have to win, so we’ll go out and battle again tomorrow.”

While the Hoppers still control their own fate against Hickory, they have no say in what West Virginia does. The advantage for the Hoppers is that they don’t have to pass either team, they just have to catch them. Since Greensboro has played two fewer games, it owns the tiebreaker in any tie situation because of a better winning percentage. With five games remaining to be played and three teams fighting things out, the scenarios are endless.

One thing the Hoppers can’t afford is a repeat of a game like Wednesday, which was atypical of their pitching staff this season.

Starter Dustin Beggs cruised through the first four innings. After allowing a leadoff single to Joel Booker to start the game, Beggs promptly picked him off and it looked like that would set the tone. He then retired the next 11 batters, aided by an excellent catch in center field by Brian Miller.

The Hoppers’ offense backed Beggs up with three runs in the first inning and six more in the third for a seemingly safe 9–0 lead.

Then, in the top of the fifth, Beggs couldn’t get anybody out. He faced eight batters and all reached base, seven on hits and one on a walk. There was an infield hit that started it all, a bunt single and a couple of seeing-eye singles that drove in runs, but also three doubles that accounted for five RBIs.

By the time Michael Mertz entered the game, seven runs had scored and there were still no outs. Mertz stopped the bleeding with only one more run scoring, but the complexion of the game had drastically changed with the Hoppers clinging to a 9–8 lead.

“That first batter (in the fifth inning) who reached on an infield hit took him out of his rhythm,” pitching coach Mark DiFelice said of Beggs. “He had his best fastball of the year. To me it looked like a loss of concentration and focus.”

Mertz pitched a scoreless sixth but was nicked for an unearned run in the seventh that tied the game 9–9. Chad Smith, a reliable relief pitcher all season, took over in the eighth. He gave up two runs but left two runners on base and both scored on a two-run single off Evan Beal to make it 13–9.

“Smitty’s fastball was elevated and he wasn’t as sharp tonight,” DiFelice said.

The Hoppers, who have numerous late-inning wins this season, chopped two runs off the lead in the bottom of the ninth but that was it.

Greensboro batters produced some nice numbers. Aaron Knapp had three hits and scored three runs. Eric Gutierrez had three more hits with three RBIs and two runs scored. Trenton HIll hit a two-run homer and added a third RBI on a sacrifice fly. Jhonny Santos and Rony Cabrera added two RBIs each.

Nine Greensboro runs came against starter Lane Hobbs in the first three innings and two more scored off reliever Matt Foster in the ninth. But the Intimidators’ bullpen did a stellar job in between. The combination of Andre Davis, Danny Dopico and J.B. Olson combined to shut out the Hoppers from the fourth through the eighth innings to give Kannapolis a chance to rally.

Thursday night, in the final home game of the regular season, right-hander Max Duval will look to stop the Hoppers’ slide. Picked up from an independent league, Duval has made five starts and has a 3–0 record with a 2.56 ERA.

“He’s been great,” DiFelice said. “He came here hungry for the opportunity and has taken advantage of it. I’m glad he’s here. He’s a guy you want in your organization.”

NOTES: Beggs’ pickoff was his 16th of the season … The Hoppers pulled a double steal in the first inning when Miller took third base and Knapp took second … It was Miller’s 17th stolen base and Knapp’s 32nd … The Hoppers were 7-for-15 with runners in scoring position, an excellent night, but Kannapolis was even better at 9-for-13 … Luis Gonzalez led the Intimidators with three hits, four RBIs and three runs scored.