Bill Hass on Baseball:Hoppers aim to take the next step

Hoppers aim to take the next step
from Bill Hass on Baseball at

Step one of the process was complete when the Hoppers qualified for the playoffs on the final day of the regular season.

Step two, a best-of-3 series against Kannapolis, will begin a day later than scheduled after Wednesday’s game at First National Bank Field was postponed by rain. The Hoppers now will host Kannapolis at 7 p.m. on Thursday. Game 2 will be in Kannapolis Friday night and game 3, if necessary, there Saturday.

The winner of this series will advance to the SAL championship round against either Greenville or Charleston, who will play in the Southern Division.

The Hoppers and Intimidators know each other well. Greensboro won the season series, 13–8, but that means nothing now. One thing for sure in a short series is the importance of the first game.

“You’ve gotta win Game 1,” said Hoppers manager Todd Pratt. “Kannapolis is a well-coached team, so it will be a good battle.”

Outfielder Aaron Knapp said the Hoppers want to capitalize on their finish to the season, when they won their final three games to clinch the playoff berth.

“We want to keep the momentum going,” Knapp said. “I think the pressure is on them. We’re loose and relaxed.”
Relief pitcher Kyle Keller, who hurled three scoreless innings Monday, said the playoffs are a reward for the hard work the team has put in since April.

“We’ve extended our season,” Keller said. “Now we have the chance to do something special.”

Max Duval (4–0, 2.09 in six games) will start for the Hoppers against Luis Martinez (8–2, 3.19) of Kannapolis. Duval made three starts against the Intimidators and won twice, including seven shutout innings on Aug. 31.

Martinez has faced the Hoppers twice, with a no-decision and a win.

There’s really no secret to the Hoppers’ pitching.

“If we execute our pitches down in the zone, I like our chances,” said pitching coach Mark DiFelice. “They have some strong players, so we can’t make mistakes.”

Pratt has credited pitching and defense all season as the team’s strong points. He also likes the way it held together after losing so many players following the All-Star break. First baseman Colby Lusignan, outfielders Boo Vazquez and Corey Bird, and infielders Mason Davis and Justin Twine were among those promoted to Jupiter.

“Our staff has been very consistent.” Pratt said. “There was never a weak link in our chain, even when some links were taken away. With the different players moving up and down, they have kept teaching what the Marlins’ way is.”

It’s been a team effort on offense because no one player carried everyone else. Third James Nelson was indispensable with his .309 average, seven homers, 31 doubles, 58 RBIs and a 24-game hitting streak. Brian Miller, a first-round draft pick who joined the club on June 26, has been essential by hitting .332, stealing 21 bases and setting the tone at the leadoff spot.

“He’s got a pro attitude,” Pratt said of Miller. “He’s more advanced in that respect than he should be.”

Pratt settled on his best lineup down the stretch because of its defense and timely hitting. All have contributed in various ways?—?catcher Jarett Rindfleisch, first baseman Eric Gutierrez, second baseman Rony Cabrera, shortstop Luis Pintor, Nelson at third and Miller, Knapp and Jhonny Santos around the outfield. Trenton Hill has usually been the DH.

Of those, the least-heralded might have been Pintor. He started the season as a utility infielders but has been a fixture at shortstop since late April when Garvis Lara was injured. Always dependable on defense, Pintor didn’t get his batting average over .200 until June 3 and steadily improved to .236 by season’s end. He led the team with 60 runs scored and collected 43 RBIs, mostly out of the ?9 spot.

“We wouldn’t be here without Luis Pintor,” Pratt said. “He doesn’t get any days off and he’s a solid shortstop, maybe the best in the league. He’s just a baseball player.”