Bounce-back win puts Hoppers in first
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball at www.gsohoppers.com
It comes down to the Hickory series after all.
The final four games of the regular season will see the Hoppers playing at Hickory, the matchup that manager Todd Pratt has been talking about for some time. And a 4–0 win over Kannapolis Thursday night put the Hoppers exactly where they wanted to be and expected to be.
The standings in the SAL’s Northern Division show a three-way tie for first place in the games behind column. But they also show the Hoppers on top because their 35–29 record has a percentage of .547 while Hickory and West Virginia, both 36–30, are at .545. So make no mistake, the Hoppers are in first place.
While Greensboro was grinding out its win, Hickory lost to Charleston 10–5 and West Virginia fell to Lakewood 3–2. While the Hoppers take on the Crawdads, West Virginia will play four games at Delmarva. Both series start Friday and end Monday.
Thursday’s victory was a bounce-back win like no other for the Hoppers. On Wednesday, they blew an early 9–0 lead and lost to the Intimidators 13–11. But, just as Pratt has preached all season, you play the game in front of you and don’t worry about the last one.
“We were fine in here (the locker room),” catcher Jarett Rindfleisch said. “Games like that happen in baseball. There wasn’t a bad atmosphere at all. You erase that game and get after it the next day.”
The Hoppers were able to do that thanks to outstanding pitching from Max Duval and Kyle Keller. Duval delivered seven shutout innings and Keller closed things down with six strikeouts in his two innings.
Kannapolis managed nine baserunners and stranded them all. They had runners on first and second base three times and not one reached third base.
“That was just what the doctor ordered, shutting down a good offense,” Pratt said. “You can’t say enough about Duval, who threw strikes and kept them off-balance. Keller was wonderful and got stronger against the meat of their order.”
Duval, who improved to 4–0 since he joined the team, set the tone early and never let up. The 26-year-old right-hander allowed five hits and no walks while striking out seven. Sixty-four of his 80 pitches were strikes and he got first-pitch strikes on 21 out of 27 batters.
“I throw a fastball, cutter, curve and change-up and all of them were working for strikes,” Duval said. “When that happens, they can’t sit on any one pitch in any situation. It was a good night to control all my pitches.”
Pitching coach Mark DiFelice said Duval’s game plan was “to attack with all of his pitches and force contact. He was locked in all night.”
Duval gave up two singles to open the fourth inning, then got three fly-ball outs. The leadoff hitter reached on a error in the sixth but he pitched around that with no problem. And when Kannapolis had two runners on in the seventh with one out, he got out of the inning with a strikeout and a fly ball.
“The game can speed up with runners on base,” Duval said. “I mentally try to take a step back and just focus on the next pitch. Slowing the game down helps.”
Keller, by his own admission, was erratic when he entered in the seventh inning. He gave up a bunt single and a walk, then buckled down and found his rhythm. He struck out ?3 hitter Blake Rutherford and cleanup hitter Jake Burger and got ?5 hitter Gavin Sheets to fly out.
“Once he settled in, he was lights out,” Rindfleisch said. “He’s quick to the plate and that speeds the hitters up.”
In the ninth, Keller was charged with a wild pitch on strike three that let Mitch Roman reach first base. So he reached back and fanned the next three hitters for a rare four-strikeout inning.
“That’s a first for me,” he said of the feat. “When I first came in, things were moving too fast and I was trying to do too much. So Rindfleisch came out and told me to slow down. I went back to basics and started locating my fastball.”
Meanwhile, the Hoppers hitters couldn’t do much with Kannapolis starter Dylan Cease, who shut them out for five innings. But they broke through in the sixth. Luis PIntor and Miller opened with singles. James Nelson’s ground ball, which turned into an error, scored Pintor and a sacrifice fly by
Eric Gutierrez scored Miller for a 2–0 lead.
Two add-one runs in the seventh came with two outs. A Kannapolis error opened the door and Miller’s two-run single scored Rony Cabrera and Pintor to make it 4–0.
So now it boils down to four games at Hickory. Kolton Mahoney will pitch Friday, Ethan Clark Saturday, MIchael King Sunday and Dustin Beggs Monday.
“Hickory’s good,” Miller said, “but I think we’re better.”
The Hoppers will finish ahead of the Crawdads by percentage if they simply split the series. But Greensboro can’t control what West Virginia does against Delmarva, so the more wins the Hoppers can get, the better.
NOTES: Miller had three of the Hoppers’ six hits and raised his average to .329 … He also stole two bases, bringing his total to 19 … The Hoppers won the season series with Kannapolis 13–8 … If Greensboro can win the Northern Division, they’ll play the Intimidators in a best-of-three series in the first round … The first game would be played in Greensboro on Wednesday, Sept. 6, with the next two in Kannapolis Sept. 8–9.
Hoppers won season series 13–8.