Hoppers head home after season ends
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball at www.gsohoppers.com
KANNAPOLIS?—?You’re spraying champagne on Monday and packing your bags for the off-season on Friday.
That’s the nature of playoff baseball, and so it was for the Greensboro Grasshoppers. The Hoppers celebrated Monday by making the playoffs with a win in Hickory on the final day of the regular season. But Kannapolis did the celebrating Friday by beating the Hoppers 3–1 to finish a two-game sweep of the Northern Division playoffs. The Intimidators advanced to play in the championship round against either Greenville or Charleston.
The loss abruptly ended the Hoppers’ season on a disappointing note, but it won’t dull the memories of all the close games won or the way they rallied down the stretch to win the second half or the camaraderie that developed and brought the team together.
“This is a game and we get to play and act like little kids,” said catcher Jarett Rindfleisch. “We had fun every day. It’s not easy to watch the other team celebrate. It leaves a hole in your stomach. But we had the chance to celebrate by making the playoffs, and that’s something I’ll always remember.
“This is a group of guys that came to work every day, grinded it out and had fun. We formed a lot of relationships.”
There was no mystery about this short series. Kannapolis pitchers held the Hoppers to one run and five total hits over the two games. The Hoppers pitched well but couldn’t quite match the Intimidators’ staff this time.
“They were a sliver better,” said Hoppers manager Todd Pratt. “They got the big hit and we didn’t. It was a great job by Kannapolis.”
The Hoppers squeezed out a run in the third inning when Rindfleisch doubled, moved to third on a sacrifice by Rony Cabrera and scored on a sacrifice fly by Jhonny Santos. For the rest of the game only one other runner reached second base.
Blake Hickman went five innings for Kannapolis to get the win, giving up the run on two hits. But the bullpen was flawless. Kevin Escorcia, Ben Wright and Danny Dopico combined to strike out nine of the 14 hitters they faced, including eight in a row at one point.
“They were clicking,” summed up James Nelson of the Hoppers.
Kannapolis scored all three runs in the fourth inning. Gavin Sheets led off with a high fly that looked like it might hook foul down the right field line but stayed fair by a few feet and carried over the fence for a solo homer to tie the game.
After a single and a walk, Michael Mertz relieved Ethan Clark with one out and struck out the first batter he faced. But Mertz threw a wild pitch that let the runners advance and Zach Remillard drove them in with a single for the cushion Kannapolis needed.
The Hoppers, who fully expected to be playing a decisive Game 3 on Saturday, instead took the long walk from their dugout across the field to their clubhouse. Their disappointment was evident, but the locker room was anything but desolate.
“We played good baseball but the ball just didn’t roll our way,” said first baseman Eric Gutierrez. “I don’t have any regrets about anything.”
Neither did Mertz.
“Well, except for that one fastball down the middle,” he said of the pitch Remillard hit. “The games will be fun to remember, but what will last is all the friendships with the players and coaching staff. It hasn’t hit me yet that tomorrow I’ll be driving home instead of to the ballpark.”
The coaches will scatter as well as the players. Frank Moore, who has been part of the Hoppers staff in several seasons, said the hitters got better and several earned promotions to Jupiter at midseason.
“I’ll spend a couple days reflecting on the season, thinking about ways to make myself better,” Moore said. “I always want to learn and improve. Then I’ll shut it down mentally.”
For pitching coach Mark DiFelice, the biggest satisfaction was watching the players take to heart some things he told them at the start of the season.
“They learned their daily routines and how to help each other and make each other better,” he said. “They became more professional with their mound presence and confidence. This is the groundwork for what they will do in the future. The experience they gained in this post-season will carry through their careers.”
The Hoppers took their cue from Pratt, known as “Tank” to everyone in the clubhouse. He played for 14 years in the major leagues but had been out of professional baseball for several years.
“We didn’t have a team with a lot of high draft picks,” Rindfleisch said. “Tank had the attitude that we would be the best, and he held us accountable to that standard.”
Pratt had become a successful coach and athletics director at a junior college, but wanted to get back to pro ball.
“I rolled a seven,” he said. “This being my first year, I think about how lucky I was to be a part of the Grasshoppers and the Marlins. I had a great staff and we taught the players how to be professionals. We played pitch to pitch, inning to inning, game to game.
“I didn’t have any preconceptions about this job. I kept an open mind and I’m very happy. I just wish the players had been able to taste a championship.”
That one taste of champagne will have to do for now.