Bill Hass on Baseball:Race still tight after Hoppers split two games

Race still tight after Hoppers split two games
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball at

The Hoppers made sure the SAL Northern Division race remained tight Saturday.

After losing 4–0 to Hickory in the resumption of Friday’s game suspended by rain, Greensboro came back to take the 7-inning second game 2–0.

West Virginia beat Delmarva 6–0 in a game shortened to five innings by rain. The Power stayed in first place with a 38–30 record, one game ahead of the Hoppers at 36–30 (.545 percentage). Hickory, although tied with Greensboro in the games behind column, is in third place at 37–31 (.544).

Two games remain in the regular season. Because Greensboro has the percentage advantage in any tie situation, it can eliminate the Crawdads by beating them in Sunday’s 5 p.m. game. A win would also keep the pressure on West Virginia, but multiple scenarios still remain.

The Hoppers would have fallen two games off the pace if they had lost the second game, but Ethan Clark and Michael Mertz didn’t let that happen. Clark went the first 4 2/3 innings, coming out after 89 pitches. Michael Mertz finished the last 2 1/3 to pick up his ninth victory.

“Clark didn’t have his best stuff but he battled,” said manager Todd Pratt in a telephone conversation. “There were a lot of foul balls and 3-and-2 counts against him.

“He did a great job in the second inning when he had men on second and third with nobody out and he struck out the side.”

Clark fanned Andretty Cordero, Charles Leblanc and Brendon Davis, all swinging, to get out of the jam.

Clark almost made it through the bottom of the fifth but was pulled after he gave up a two-out double. Mertz got a groundout for the final out, then retired the side in order in the sixth.

In the seventh, Mertz gave up a single and a walk to start the inning. Then he got Leblanc to pop up a bunt, which Mertz caught, and induced Davis to ground into a game-ending double play. It was a classic around-the-horn play, from third baseman James Nelson to second baseman Rony Cabrera to first basean Eric Gutierrez.

The Hoppers scored a run in the first inning when they loaded the bases with no one out. Eric Gutierrez brought home Brian Miller on a sacrifice fly, but that’s all they could manage. James Nelson, who had three hits, belted his seventh homer of the season in the top of the sixth inning to make it 2–0.

“That was a huge homer and gave us some insurance,” Pratt said. “People don’t realize Nelson was out for 16 or 17 days (hamstring injury) and he’s getting his timing back. He was 0-for-10 but made some adjustments in the second game.”

The first game, which resumed with the Hoppers down 2–0 in the bottom of the third, just didn’t go their way. Hickory’s Christian Torres pitched six shutout innings the rest of the way.

“He’s a crafty lefty and we couldn’t solve his off-speed stuff,” Pratt said. “He saved their bullpen.”

Evan Beal covered four innings, giving up an unearned run, and newcomer Ryan Lillie finished with two shutout innings. That saved the Hoppers’ best bullpen arms, Kyle Keller and Chad Smith, for Sunday and Monday. Kolton Mahoney, who pitched only two innings Friday, could also be available if needed in either of the final two games.