Bill Hass on Baseball:Braley leads way on combined no-hitter

Braley leads way on combined no-hitter
from Bill Hass, with Bill on Baseball(Greensboro Grasshoppers) at

Taylor Braley didn’t plan on getting his name in the South Atlantic League record book on Sunday, but that’s the way it worked out.

In the opening game of a doubleheader at Kannapolis, Braley pitched the first five innings of a combined no-hitter as the Hoppers held on to beat the Imtimidators 2–1. Jeremy Ovalle and Michael Mertz also pitched in the seven-inning game.

“I was just excited that we won the game,” Braley said in a phone conversation. “I had forgotten about the no-hitter until everybody started congratulating me.”

It was the second no-hitter in the Hoppers’ 14-year history. The other, also a combined effort, came on April 23, 2012, at Hickory. The late Jose Fernandez started and threw the first six innings of a 6–0 win. Greg Nappo and Kevin Cravey were the other two pitchers in a game that went nine innings.

Both no-hitters have come on the road. There never has been a no-hitter in the Hoppers’ home stadium, although there nearly was one on July 29. Trevor Rogers pitched 7 2/3 innings of no-hit ball against Hickory before being touched for a hit. The Hoppers won that game 2–1 but Rogers received no decision.

Braley hadn’t pitched for the Hoppers since June 13. He went on the disabled list with a shoulder injury shortly after that. When he was ready to pitch again, he made two rehab starts with the Marlins’ team in the Gulf Coast League, throwing six innings and allowing six hits but no runs.

Back with the Hoppers, Braley knew he would be on a pitch count, five innings or 75 pitches. He wound up throwing 66 pitches with two walks and four strikeouts as he brought his record to 5–5.

“He was outstanding for five innings,” said manager Todd Pratt. “He had a good fastball-slider combination going and they didn’t hit anything hard. He was dominant.”

Braley had a slightly different viewpoint. He said he gave up back-to-back hard-hit balls in the fifth inning, one a line drive caught by first baseman Harrison Dinicola and the other a fly ball to center caught by Thomas Jones.

“Things went better than I expected,” Braley said. “I used 25 pitches in the second inning when I gave up both walks. I was throwing too much off-speed stuff and not getting ahead in the count. After that I went back to attacking with my fastball and forcing early contact. It went pretty good after that.”

Braley was a sixth-round draft pick by the Marlins in 2017 out of Southern Mississippi. He was a starting pitcher in his junior year but only pitched once a week and never between games. His everyday position was third base, so he’s still fairly new to being a full-time pitcher.

“I’m definitely still in the learning process,” he said, “and there’s a lot more to learn.”

As if the hot, humid day wasn’t uncomfortable enough, the Hoppers endured some extra sweat in the sixth and seventh innings. After Braley’s day was done, with the Hoppers leading 2–0, Jeremy Ovalle came on in the sixth.

Ovalle ran into difficulty right away, walking Ian Dawkins and hitting hitting Luis Curbelo before striking out Steele Walker for the first out. He got a forceout but then he walked Tate Blackman to load the bases. Pratt then called on Michael Mertz, who recently earned the role as the Hoppers’ closer.

“At that point, we weren’t concerned about the no-hitter,” Pratt said. “We just wanted to win the game.”

But Mertz walked Tyler Frost to force in a run that cut the lead to 2–1. Mertz avoided further damage by striking out Evan Skoug on three pitches to end the inning.

In the seventh, Mertz got a groundout for the first out but followed by walking Justin Yurchak. Dawkins hit into a force play for the second out. Mertz then locked down his fourth save by striking out Curbelo to end the game.

The Hoppers only managed three hits but two of them were by Isael Soto and he made them count. One was his seventh homer of the year, a solo shot in the fourth inning. In the sixth, after Thomas Jones bunted safely for a hit and stole second base, Soto drove him in with a single.

The Hoppers were shut out in the second game, 9–0, and managed just two hits.

“That didn’t take anything away from the first game,” Pratt said.

The Hoppers had been rained out for four straight days, two in Rome and two in Kannapolis, before splitting doubleheaders Saturday and Sunday.

“The first couple of days, everyone enjoyed the days off,” Pratt said. “By the third day, we were just ready to get back to work. Baseball players are used to working every day. With that much time off, you get into a rusty mode.”

After a scheduled day off Monday, the Hoppers return home for seven games. They begin a three-game series against West Virginia Tuesday, followed by four against Asheville.