Bill Hass on Baseball:Kannapolis puts Hoppers in a 1–0 hole

Kannapolis puts Hoppers in a 1–0 hole
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball at

The Hoppers have played some of their best baseball with their backs against the wall, and they will need to now to extend their season.

Kannapolis got the best of Greensboro with a 4–0 win Thursday in the opening game of the first round of the SAL’s Northern Division playoffs. The scene shifts to Kannapolis Friday for game 2 at 7 o’clock. The Hoppers must win to force a third game Saturday.

“It still takes two games to win the series,” said Hoppers manager Todd Pratt. “We just have to win two in a row now.”

The Intimidators grabbed the momentum with the opening win, but the Hoppers can swing it right back by returning the favor Friday.

“If we lose we go home, so why not pull out all the stops?” said outfielder Aaron Knapp. “The hitters will pick it up tomorrow night.”

Kannapolis used four pitchers to shut down the Hoppers’ offense with just three hits Thursday. Starter Luis Martinez got through five innings to pick up the playoff win. Kade McClure, Andre Davis and Matt Foster finished, allowing just one hit and one walk among them.

“Playoffs come down to pitching and theirs was outstanding tonight,” Pratt said. “Martinez did a great job and their bullpen didn’t let the door open.”

Martinez allowed two hits but walked two, hit a batter and threw a wild pitch. He was able to pitch around the trouble, with his biggest challenge coming in the third inning when the Hoppers loaded the basses with two outs. He struck out Trenton Hill to end the threat and that was it for the Hoppers’ offense, which didn’t get a runner to second base in the last six innings.

“They mix up their sequences and they’re not afraid to throw something off-speed when they’re behind in the count,” said Brian Miller, who got two of the Hoppers’ hits. “And they keep the ball down. We just didn’t get a big hit to get any momentum.”

The Hoppers’ pitching wasn’t quite as good as that of Kannapolis, but it would have won a lot of games. Starter Max Duval went five innings and Kolton Mahoney finished the last four, which saves the bullpen for Friday and Saturday.

The Kannapolis roster was bolstered by the addition of outfielder Willy Garcia on a rehab assignment. Garcia played 31 games in Triple-A and 40 games with the Chicago White Sox this season. He was an asset right away when his two-out infield single got things going in the first inning. Garcia moved to second on a walk to Gavin Sheets and scored on a broken-bat blooper by Jake Burger.

In the fourth inning, Luis Gonzalez hit a long homer to right-center to make ti 2–0. The lead expanded to 3–0 in the fifth on an uncharacteristic letdown by the Hoppers’ defense. Joel Booker singled and stole second base. The throw by catcher Jarett Rindfleisch went into center field for an error. From there, Jhonny Santos’ throw from there was air-mailed into the stands behind third base. The error on the second overthrow allowed Booker to score.

Kannapolis scored an add-on run in the ninth to put things out of reach.

“Duval had a good start and really only got hurt by one pitch (the homer),” said pitching coach Mark DiFelice. “Mahoney gave us four quality innings and those two guys gave us a chance.”

The Intimidators made some good defensive plays. The best might have been by Burger, who back-handed a grounder by Rony Cabrera behind third base, then made a long throw to get him at first base.

The best defensive play of the night was turned in by Hoppers shortstop Luis Pintor in the eighth inning. Pintor sprinted to the second-base side of the bag and made a splendid full-out diving catch of a low liner by Sheets.

Ethan Clark draws the start for the Hoppers Friday, and DiFelice expects five quality innings from him. After that, the bullpen is rested and ready.

“It’s a case of ‘give us what you’ve got,’” DiFelice said.

Pratt said the spirits in the dugout were good throughout the game. It has been a hallmark of this team that it doesn’t panic.

“We’re pretty good at staying even-keel,” Knapp said, “and it’s because of Tank (Pratt).”