Jose Fernandez — A Shooting Star

Sept. 25, 2016

It’s hard to come to grips with this, to fathom what happened, to wrap my head around the finality of it.

Jose Fernandez killed in a boating accident.

In my 47 years as a sports writer, many athletes, coaches, administrators and others that I’ve known have passed away, some of them very young. The hardest to accept was the unexpected death of Wake Forest basketball coach Skip Prosser several years ago.

I had an especially difficult time processing that one, even finding the right word for my reaction. Finally, before Prosser’s memorial service, I saw a friend of mine and asked how he was doing.

“I am stunned,” he said, using the word I was looking for.

And that’s my reaction to this news. Stunned, as if I had been hit between the eyes with a sledgehammer.

As this is written, specifics of the accident are still emerging. Fernandez and two close friends were in a 30-foot boat that crashed on some rocks at night, killing all three. Initial reports are that drugs and alcohol were not a factor, but the high speed of the boat was. They all died from the collision, not from drowning. Who was piloting the boat is not yet known.

Fernandez was just a few weeks past his 24th birthday. People that age die every day around the world, from accidents, shootings, disease, famine, overdoses and other causes. All are gone far too soon. But Jose Fernandez is someone I knew, someone I watched, someone I interviewed and someone I liked immensely. And when he made the major leagues one year after pitching for the Greensboro Grasshoppers, he was someone I rooted for.

In early April of 2012, a couple of days before the season opener, the Hoppers made their players available for interviews. Fernandez, then 19 and a year out of high school, was one of several I talked to. Most minor league players have good stories to tell, but no one could match Fernandez.

A native of Cuba, he wanted desperately to escape that country so he could pursue his dream of playing professional baseball.

“The life out there was pretty rough,” he told me. “It’s hard to live. Sometimes you don’t have anything to eat, you don’t have clothes. They don’t let you go; if you (try to) go, they put you in jail. I was in jail down there before and I don’t want to be again.”

He was caught three times trying to escape in a speedboat. Once he got within 10 miles of Miami. Another time, when someone in the boat went overboard, he dived in to rescue them and only then did he realize he had saved his mother.

On the fourth try, he was successful, getting out with his mother and father. He was 15 years old, having endured a tough life, time in jail and three failed attempts to defect. It’s no wonder that he wasn’t in the least intimidated by pitching in the major leagues.

Once he finally reached America in 2008, Fernandez never took this country for granted. On April 24 of 2015, he took the oath to become a U.S. citizen, perhaps the proudest day of his life.

“This is a dream that I’ve had since I was little, and actually achieving it is really amazing,” he was quoted then. “I’m an American citizen now — I’m one of them. I consider myself now to be free. I thank this amazing country for giving me the opportunity to go to school here and learn the language and pitch in the major leagues. It’s an honor to be a part of this country, and I respect it so much.”

It was with the Hoppers that Fernandez began to shape his professional career. One thing I noticed about him right away was his confidence.

“I was throwing 94 to 100 miles an hour,” he said of his time in spring training. “My curve ball, my two-seam fastball, my changeup, my slider, my cutter, everything was working good.”

Something else that stood out was his exuberance — and it wasn’t an act.

“Baseball is my life,” he said. “It’s what I love to do. I can’t be without it. My number one goal is to go out there and help my team win. When I do that, I’m pitching good, my team is happy, my coaches are happy, all our players are happy. That’s my goal, keeping everybody happy.”

Fernandez had a ready smile and helped keep things loose in the locker room. His outgoing personality quickly won over his teammates and his immense talent didn’t hurt, either. He pitched the first six innings of a combined no-hitter, which was finished by Greg Nappo and Kevin Cravey. Overall, he posted a 7-0 record with a 1.59 ERA, helping the Hoppers win the first half of the Northern Division to clinch a spot in the SAL playoffs.

Curiously, and unfortunately, Greensboro fans only got a glimpse of Fernandez. Because of a quirk in the way the pitching rotation lined up, he started 10 games on the road and only four in NewBridge Bank Park. Three of those resulted in no decisions. But the one game he did win here was an example of his fortitude.

As the first half drew to a close, the Hoppers needed one win to clinch the playoff spot. Fernandez’s turn in the rotation came up, and manager David Berg couldn’t have been happier.

“There’s nobody I’d rather have out there,” Berg told me. “There’s not a better competitor … and he’s not afraid of anything.”

Fernandez didn’t have his best stuff that night against Charleston, being touched for eight hits and four runs. He was tagged for three runs in the sixth inning, then returned to pitch shutout innings in the seventh and eighth. He struck out all three hitters in the eighth, leaving the game with the Hoppers leading 5-4, which turned out to be the final score.

“This has been amazing,” he said after the game. “The fans, the people in the front office, the team. I love it. It’s been a great experience for me. It doesn’t matter about the numbers, the strikeouts and all that. It’s all about the team winning.”

As I was talking with Fernandez that night, Wayne Rosenthal, then the Marlins’ minor league pitching coordinator, quietly informed him that he was being promoted to the high Class A team in Jupiter. And that ended his stint in Greensboro. It was the right call — Fernandez went 7-1 in Jupiter with a 1.96 ERA to finish the season with a combined record of 14-1.

He was slated for Double-A the next year, but the Marlins were hit by some injuries to their pitching staff. In the discussions about how to fill the roster, it was Rosenthal who sold the idea of bringing up Fernandez, reasoning that “if they want the best, it’s him.” Putting a 20-year old pitcher on a major league roster is rare, but all Fernandez did was become the National League Rookie of the Year.

“What he’s been through in his life, anything that comes to him now is easy,” Rosenthal told me early in 2013. “Falling off the boat trying to get out of Cuba is pressure. Getting thrown in jail at 14 is pressure. Here it’s nothing, and that’s his mentality. As long as he keeps that, nothing is going to be hard for him. In his mind it’s going to be easy, whether he succeeds or fails.”

Fernandez succeeded. Although he had a setback with Tommy John surgery, he recovered and threw as well as ever. I watched him whenever I could on TV — Marlins games aren’t easy to find — and when I went to spring training this year I saw him pitch twice. He threw five no-hit innings in the first game.

And now he’s gone. His statistics in the majors will always read 76 games, 38-17 record, 2.58 ERA, 589 strikeouts in 471 innings. They are an indication of his talent with the suggestion that he was going to be one of the best pitchers, maybe the very best, of his generation.

What they don’t reflect is his ebullient, even flamboyant, personality, his love of baseball and his love of life. The stats won’t tell you how the crowds in Miami spiked whenever he pitched, how he was the pride not only of the Cuban community there but also the pride of the baseball community that loved to watch the joy with which he pitched.

There’s a haunting song by the rock group Bad Company that has been running through my mind most of the day. For me, it seems to fit the fleeting life of Jose Fernandez. Here’s the chorus:

“Don’t you know that you are a shooting star, don’t you know, don’t you know
“Don’t you know that you are a shooting star
“And all the world will love you just as long, as long as you are.”

It was a short run for this shooting star, who packed more into 24 years than many do in a lifetime. I think the way I’ll remember him will be as someone who overcame enormous odds to achieve his dream, then squeezed every ounce of life out of it that he could in the time that he had. But it’s going to take some time for that to sink in.

Hoppers bid goodbye to NewBridge with loss

Sept. 1, 2016

The NewBridge Bank Park era ended with a single bang and nothing else for the Hoppers Thursday night.

Shortstop J.J. Gould got the team’s only hit, a solo home run in the fifth inning, as the Hoppers fell 3-1 to Delmarva in the final home game of the season. They still have four games to play in Lakewood, starting Friday, but they take a 10-game losing streak into that series.

As for the Hoppers’ home field, it will have a new name next season. NewBridge Bank was bought by Yadkin Bank, which in turn was gobbled up by First National Bank of Pennsylvania, known as FNB. Team president Donald Moore he knows FNB will be in the name next year but it hasn’t been worked out if it will be called a park, a stadium or a field.

The Hoppers were swept in the four-game series, scoring only 10 runs. Gould drove in seven of them with three homers and a pair of singles. Shorebirds left-hander Reid Love held the Hoppers at bay with a sharp breaking ball. He retired the first 13 hitters, gave up Gould’s homer, then retired the last seven he faced in his seven-inning stint. Love won his ninth game of the season, striking out seven.

Reliever Luke Rutledge, another lefty, set down all six hitters he faced to record his sixth save. The two pitchers combined to retire 27 of 28 Greensboro batters.

There were some excellent defensive plays by the Hoppers. Isael Soto made a fine catch in the right field corner, Kyle Barrett went up against the fence to haul in a drive to left field and the infield, with utility man Gio Alfonzo playing first base, turned three double plays.

Starter Cody Poteet, as he has done all year, battled his way through five innings. He gave up five hits, including a leadoff homer, plus three walks but limited the damage to two runs. In his final start of the season, he was charged with his 10th loss against four wins, although he finished with a sparkling 2.81 ERA.

Gould lone bright spot as Hoppers are swept

Aug. 31, 2016

The best thing about Wednesday night for the Hoppers was that the month of August ended.

In losing a doubleheader to Delmarva, 5-3 and 5-0, the Hoppers finished 7-23 for August. They have lost nine straight, 13 of 14 and 20 of 23.

As the calendar flips to September, five games remain. The final home game of the season in NewBridge Bank Park starts at 7 o’clock Thursday night, followed by four games at Lakewood.

“We’re in salvage mode now, playing for pride,” said manager Kevin Randel.

It was another frustrating offensive evening. The lone bright spot was shortstop J.J. Gould, who hit two homers and drove in all three runs in the first game, giving him six RBIs in the last two games.

The Hoppers recorded seven hits in the opener but were stifled in the second game, managing just four baserunners on two hits and two walks. Only one of those reached second base.

What bothered Randel about the first game were things like a runner getting picked off, failure to move runners over and going 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position.

“It’s those little things that can lead to big innings and we aren’t getting them done,” Randel said. “Losing is one thing, but those little mistakes are what eat at me — situational hitting, moving runners. There’s no way we’re that bad. We’re just not mentally focused.”

Gould, playing just his fifth game with the Hoppers, belted a two-run homer in the fourth inning and a solo shot in the in the sixth.

“I think that’s the first time I’ve hit two in a game at any level,” he said.

Gould wasn’t drafted until after his senior season at Jacksonville when the Marlins picked him in the 24th round. He said he matured a lot between his junior and senior years, enough to draw interest from several teams. At age 23, he’s got to make an impression in a hurry. The Marlins sent him to Batavia, where he played 52 games and hit .242 with six homers and 20 RBIs. He started his Hoppers stint by going 0-for-12.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity because not everyone gets this chance,” he said. “It took me a while to get my feet under me (at this level) but the guys have made the transition pretty easy. I really didn’t change anything. I just stuck with it and started trusting myself more.”

Like everyone else in the lineup, except for the singles by Casey Soltis and John Silviano, Gould came up empty in the second game, going 0-for-3.

NOTES: Cody Poteet will pitch Thursday’s game, his final start of the season … Ryan Newell, rehabbing an injury that has cost him most of the season, pitched two innings and allowed one run in the second game and wound up taking the loss … The Shorebirds hit four homers in the doubleheader, three in the second game … The two losses dropped the Hoppers to 65-70 overall, meaning they must sweep their final five games to finish .500.

Sullivan adds to a season of spectacular catches

Aug. 30, 2016

It’s a matter of self-motivation for the Hoppers as the 2016 season winds down.

After Tuesday’s 9-6 loss to Delmarva, the Hoppers still have seven games on the schedule, including a doubleheader at NewBridge Bank Park Wednesday. They are already eliminated from the second-half race in the Northern Division. And although they are mathematically alive in the overall standings in case first-half winner Hagerstown should also win the second half (they trail Lakewood by three games), the odds are remote.

“There’s always motivation,” said manager Kevin Randel. “You have to find what gets you going. Going through the motions won’t cut it.”

And that explains why center fielder Zach Sullivan made another terrific catch, going above the fence in left-center to rob Delmarva’s Ademar Rifaela of a home run in the second inning. Rifaela was between second and third bases when Sullivan pulled the ball down, causing him to throw his head back and snatch off his hat in frustration or maybe disbelief.

Although the Hoppers were headed to a season-high seventh straight loss, it never crossed Sullivan’s mind not to go all-out. He’s been making spectacular catches all season and a losing streak wasn’t going to alter his style.

“No matter what, I”m going after that ball,” he said. “We still have to play hard, I know that. We want to try to finish strong.”

Motivation comes in other forms for other players. Shortstop J.J. Gould, for instance, drove in three runs with a pair of singles. Drafted this year out of Jacksonville, he played at Batavia before being assigned to Greensboro, where he went hitless in his first 12 at-bats. But he’s essentially auditioning for the 2017 season, trying to make a good impression in the remaining games.

For outfielder Stone Garrett, there’s an opportunity to show a little bit of what he can do. Garrett missed 10 weeks after suffering a thumb laceration (in the Josh Naylor “prank”) that required surgery. In the first 15 games after his return, he didn’t have an RBI. He solved that Tuesday with a line drive home run to left field.

Defense was solid the whole game. Besides Sullivan’s catch, second baseman Justin Twine ranged up the middle for a fine stop and good throw to get a batter. Third baseman Aaron Blanton speared a hot one-hopper, stepped on third for a forceout and fired to second base for a double play.

The Hoppers banged out 11 hits and the six runs were the most scored in a game in August. But pitching faltered for the second straight game, allowing 16 hits. The staff has surrendered 19 runs in the last two games.

“We have relied on our pitching all season,” Randel said, “and that’s tough to do every night. They’ve carried us more than enough games this year.”

Pitching coach Brendan Sagara said it’s important for his staff not to tire mentally in the final stretch.

“It’s not easy because they have pitched at a high level all year,” he said. “But we want them to compete until the final out on Sept. 5.”

NOTES: Kyle Barrett had a double, triple and bunt single in his first three trips before making outs his final two … John Silviano hit his eighth home run, a solo shot to left field (his opposite field) … Isael Soto had two hits, walked twice and scored twice … Trevor Richards will pitch the first game Wednesday, which begins at 5 p.m. … Ryan Newell, who pitched here in 2014 but has missed most of this year with an injury, will start and pitch a couple of innings in the second game … Closer C.J. Robinson was named to the all-league team.

Strange finish pushes Hoppers past Hickory

Aug. 22, 2016

Maybe a bizarre ending will be just the spark the Hoppers need.

Mired in a slump that had seen them lose 11 out of 13 games, a stretch in which no breaks seemed to go their way, they got the benefit of an umpire’s call Monday night. With Casey Soltis on third base and Justin Twine at the plate in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth, Hickory relief pitcher Tyler Ferguson was called for a balk. Soltis was waved home with the game-winning run to provide a 4-3 victory.

In other words, a balk-off.

“That’s about as interesting as it gets,” Soltis said of the strange finish.

The outcome broke a four-game losing streak for the Hoppers and lifted them to 27-29 in the second half of the SAL season. They still trail Lakewood by 6 1/2 games in the Northern Division, but now they get a chance to do something about it. They begin a three-game series in Lakewood Tuesday night, followed by three games in Hagerstown, the second-place team.

“This gives us a certain amount of momentum,” Soltis added. “Those are two teams we’ve got to gain ground on.”

And there’s not much time left. Fourteen games remain in the regular season, including four more at Lakewood to end the season. So that’s seven chances against the BlueClaws. There are five teams for the Hoppers to pass in the standings, but at least they control their fate to a certain degree.

“We’ll try to come out with all six wins,” Twine said of the road trip.

Nobody would script a game like this. To begin with, scheduled starting pitcher Cody Poteet had to see a doctor for a non-injury problem. So around lunchtime, Justin Jacome was told he would be making a spot start. The tall left-hander has been a starter most of the season anyhow, and he responded well.

Not that he was on cruise control. Every inning was a grind but Jacome found a way to limit the damage to one run. Pitching coach Brendan Sagara said Jacome’s mental toughness was his biggest asset. Manager Kevin Randel agreed.

“You couldn’t ask anything more of him,” Randel said. “He just knows how to pitch.”

Some terrific defense helped his cause, starting in the first inning. Mason Davis made a diving catch in left field with the bases loaded for the third out.

“I got a pretty good read on it,” Davis said. “I decided I had to go for it. If it drops in front of me it’s two runs. Of course, if it gets by me, it’s probably three runs. I jumped for it and tried to catch it before my body hit the ground. I felt good about my chances.”

In the fourth, shortstop Gio Alfonzo ranged behind second base to spear a grounder and got enough on the one-hop throw to Angel Reyes at first to nip the runner and end the inning.

Davis made another fine catch in the fifth, sprinting into the Hoppers bullpen to haul in a foul ball
to end the inning.

“Everyone was yelling ‘wall, wall’ so I knew I was close to it,” Davis said. “I caught it between the mound and the plate and sort of dropped to one knee to stop my momentum.”

The Hoppers took awhile to get going on offense, with Crawdads starter Emerson Martinez retiring the first 11 batters. But they broke through in the fifth. Aaron Blanton walked, Zach Sullivan got an infield single and Soltis singled in Blanton, with Sullivan moving from first to third. That set up a sacrifice fly by Alfonzo that put the Hoppers on top 2-1.

They added a run in the sixth when Twine doubled, moved to third on Isael Soto’s single and scored on a groundout by Reyes.

That lead stood up behind reliever Kyle Keller, who worked around a leadoff triple in the sixth without allowing a run. In the seventh, he fanned Hickory’s Frandy De La Rosa and catcher John Silviano cut down Eric Jenkins trying to steal on a strike-him-out, throw-him-out double play.

Things took an unexpected turn in the eighth when closer C.J. Robinson gave up two runs that tied the game 3-3. He came back to pitch a shutout ninth inning, backed by a fine double play. Alfonzo ranged to his right to stop a ground ball and threw from his knees to Twine at second for one out. Twine made the pivot and his relay to first got the batter.

“As soon as the ball came off the bat, I knew I was going to second,” Alfonzo said. “I trust Twine to give us a chance for the double play.”

All that set up the strange finish. Soltis got it started with a one-out single and moved to second on a passed ball. Alfonzo grounded out on an excellent play by Hickory shortstop Yeyson Yrizarri, throwing from his knees. But that enabled Soltis to move to third, a crucial development.

That brought up Davis, a switch-hitter, and the Crawdads elected to give him an intentional walk by left-hander Adam Choplick. Then they brought in right-hander Ferguson to face Twine, a right-handed hitter. Davis took second base on catcher’s indifference, but his run was irrelevant as the Crawdads concentrated on Twine.

As Ferguson started his windup, base umpire Matt Carlyon held up both hands to signal a balk and waved Soltis home, triggering a Hoppers celebration as if someone had hit a grand slam.

And the odd thing was, no one quite knew what happened.

“I was more focused on not getting picked off,” Soltis said. “I didn’t know until the umpire called it.”

Twine’s focus was on the at-bat.

“I couldn’t tell,” he said. “It’s one of the strangest endings I’ve ever been a part of, but we’ll take anything we can get.”

Sagara said he was looking down and missed the call. Randel didn’t see it, either.

“Twine must have looked mean in the (batter’s) box,” Randel said.

The explanation that seemed most likely was a “start and stop.” Ferguson started his windup, stopped and then started again, drawing the balk call.

“Maybe this will open up the floodgates,” Randel said. “We just have to play good ball (on the road) and take care of business.”

Good efforts go for naught for Hoppers

Aug. 21, 2016

Some good efforts wound up being wasted by the Hoppers Sunday afternoon.

Such as a four-hit game by Mason Davis.

And an excellent performance by starting pitcher Trevor Richards, who allowed four hits and one run over six innings.

Both of those were to no avail as Greensboro fell to Hickory 3-2 in a game that included a rain delay of an hour and 38 minutes. It was the Hoppers’ fourth straight loss and their 11th defeat in their last 13 games. Five of the losses have been by one run in that stretch.

“It’s driving me nuts a little bit,” manager Kevin Randel admitted.

The outcome left the Hoppers 26-29 in the second half, six games behind Lakewood, which leads the Northern Division. Fifteen games remain in the regular season.

The Hoppers had their opportunities. They got 11 hits, but were just 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position and stranded 10 runners. They got the first and second batters on base in each of the first three innings but scored just one run. The clutch hit continued to elude him.

“I love the pressure we put on them,” Randel said, “but we’re just one big hit away. I thought we had it today and the umpire over-ruled it.”

His reference was to a third-inning at-bat by Stone Garrett. After Davis and Angel Reyes opened the inning with singles, Garrett drove a ball into the right-field corner that kicked into the field of play. Davis scored, Reyes wound up on third and Garrett was on second — except the ball was ruled foul by home plate umpire Matt Carlyon. After Carlyon consulted with base umpire Joe Schwartz, the call stood.

The runners returned to their original bases and Garrett went back to the plate, where he struck out. Aaron Blanton fouled out and Gio Alfonzo struck out, ending the inning.

It was a tough call. Some observers, including Hoppers pitching coach Brendan Sagara, insisted the ball hit the foul pole — which is a fair ball — and landed in play. Another said the base umpire had the best view and didn’t change the call. First base coach Jose Ceballos said the coaching box doesn’t have the best angle. Carlyon told Randel the ball grazed the padding in foul territory before it hit the pole.

“It was tough for me to see,” Randel said. “I couldn’t see exactly where it hit. It was a tough break either way.”

What could have been a big inning — one run in for a 2-0 lead with runners on second and third and no outs — was short-circuited. Even then, other chances were wasted. The Hoppers scored a run on Blanton’s RBI single in the first but left two runners in scoring position. They loaded the bases in the eighth and got a run when Casey Soltis walked, but that was all.

In the ninth, Davis ripped a one-out double into the gap for his fourth hit. Reyes lined a hard shot to first base that was caught by Tyler Sanchez, who then threw to shortstop Josh Altmann to double Davis off second base and bring the game to an abrupt end.

“I tried to freeze,” said Davis, “but I strayed off the bag a little too far and the shortstop slipped in behind me (to cover second base). I probably should have taken a step back toward the base. Baseball is crazy like that sometimes.”

Davis joined the team recently after missing the season with a stress fracture of his pelvis. He struggled in his first seven games, hitting .182, before breaking out Sunday.

“They did a good job of taking care of me and getting me healthy,” he said of the trainers at the rehab facility in Jupiter. “I felt ready when I joined the team. But this isn’t about me. It’s about the team, and we have to keep pushing and keep fighting.”

Richards threw shutout ball for five innings before allowing a run in the sixth that tied the game. He threw 69 pitches, 48 of them for strikes. His day was done before the rain delay and when the game resumed, Marcus Crescentini took over. He was touched for runs in the seventh and eighth, with Jeff Kinley relieving him in the eighth and limiting the damage to one run.

“That was as good an outing from a starter as we’ve had all year,” Sagara said of Richards. “Kinley was really good and Crescentini battled but it just wasn’t his day.”

The series wraps up Monday night with a 7 o’clock game and Cody Poteet starting for the Hoppers.

Hoppers drop series opener to Hickory

Aug. 19, 2016

It took the Hoppers more than a month to find their offensive stride this season.

Now they’re looking for it again, but they don’t have a month left to find it. Only 17 games remain in the regular season and things are beginning to slip away.

An 8-3 loss to Hickory Friday night left the Hoppers 4 1/2 games behind Lakewood, the leader in the SAL’s Northern Division. And of the six teams in contention for the second-half title, the Hoppers are sixth at 26-27. The standings can fluctuate on any given night, but that’s a lot of teams between the Hoppers and their goal.

The Hoppers have lost nine of their last 11 games, scoring just 20 runs. They haven’t scored more than three runs in a game since Aug. 6, when they beat Kannapolis 5-3. And those five runs are the high-water mark for the month.

There’s no magic potion for manager Kevin Randel to concoct. Wearing special jerseys hasn’t helped — there was no win in the tropical jerseys Thursday and none in the military appreciation tops Friday. And bringing retired bat dog Miss Babe Ruth out of retirement to sub for the injured Lou Lou Gehrig provided no relief Friday.

The Hoppers started the season in a dreadful hitting slump — it took about three weeks to bring the team average above .200 — but they found a way out of it. So how did they turn it around?

“People have asked me that,” Randel said, “but I can’t think of one thing we did. There wasn’t one at-bat or one inning that turned us around and no one carried us. It was done throughout the lineup, a team effort, like a wave. I can’t wait for the next one to start.”

The offense is going so badly now that it has little chance to overcome a rare off-night by the pitching staff. It scored three runs in the first four innings, then was shut out over the final five.

It was a committee approach to pitching Friday. Isaac Gil, who had not allowed a run in 13 2/3 innings out of the bullpen, got the start and breezed through the first, then was tagged for four runs (one unearned) in the next three innings. He left with a 4-3 deficit that the Hoppers couldn’t make up. Newcomer Preston Guillory had the only success among four relievers, pitching a scoreless inning. Hickory scored in five of the nine innings.

“You could smell that it was one of those days coming,” Randel said. “They’ve been so good lately. But a loss is a loss and whether it’s 4-3 or 10-3, it hurts just as much.”

The offense did manage 10 hits, but nine of them were singles. Gunner Pollman hit his first homer as a Hopper and added a single. Angel Reyes picked up two RBIs with a pair of singles and Zach Sullivan added two more hits.

The Hoppers get three more cracks at the Crawdads in this series. Ben Meyer draws the start for the second game Saturday at 7 p.m. at NewBridge Bank Park. (Full confession: I will not be able to attend this game but will return Sunday.)

Failure to do little things hurts Hoppers in loss

Aug. 18, 2016

The Hoppers have to get hot.

After Thursday’s 5-2 loss to Delmarva, they have 18 games remaining in the regular season. They trail first-place Lakewood by 3 1/2 games in the Northern Division of the SAL. That’s not insurmountable by any means, but the problem is that they’re just one of six teams with a shot at winning the second half, so they simply can’t afford many more losses.

Hickory comes in for a four-game series starting Friday night. Simply put, the Hoppers, with a 26-26 record, need to win at least three of those games. A split does them little or no good.

“We have to get rolling,” said manager Kevin Randel. “We don’t have to win every game, but we need to start winning series.”

To do that, the team has got to execute better on offense because runs are exceptionally difficult to come by. The Hoppers have won just two of their last 10 games, scoring only 17 runs in that span. They’re unlikely to go out and thump anybody.

“We’re not doing the little things right now,” Randel said. “We need those big runs because we’re not going to hit three-run dingers (home runs) very often. Situational hitting is what it all comes down to.”

That means moving runners over and then getting a clutch hit, or at least a sacrifice fly, to drive them in. In Thursday’s game, for instance, Aaron Blanton reached second base on a Delmarva throwing error to open the fifth inning. He had to hold there when Stone Garrett grounded out to third. John Silviano singled to right field, but Blanton hesitated to see if the ball would be caught and was held at third base. Zach Sullivan struck out and Gio Alfonzo hit into a fielder’s choice to end the inning.

In the bottom of the 10th, down three runs, the Hoppers got the first two hitters on base, then made three straight outs to strand them.

Some good defense aided the Shorebirds. In the ninth, Garrett walked and Sullivan laced a grounder just inside third base that appeared headed into the Hoppers’ bullpen. It was probably a double and might have scored Garrett — except third baseman Ricardo Andujar, guarding the line, made a fine backhand stop and long throw to nip Sullivan for the third out.

The Hoppers’ runs came on a solo homer in the sixth by Justin Twine and an RBI double by Sullivan in the seventh that followed Garrett’s double.

Starting pitcher L.J. Brewster gave up two runs in the first three innings, then shut out Delmarva over the next three to keep the game close. Trey Lambert followed with two scoreless innings and Marcus Crescentini had an adventure in the ninth, loading the bases before getting a strikeout to end it.

“I thought Brewster did his job,” pitching coach Brendan Sagara said. “Even their base hits were ground balls, not ringing doubles. He was good, Lambert was good and Crescentini wasn’t sharp but got it done.”

The surprise came when C.J. Robinson, rock-steady all season, came on in the 10th inning. He quickly disposed of the first two hitters, then gave up a single to Alex Murphy. Natanael Delgado followed with a two-run homer and Stuart Levy added a solo homer and suddenly Delmarva had a 5-2 lead.

“It was definitely disappointing, quite unlike him,” Sagara said of Robinson. “He threw a couple of careless pitches and left them over the plate. I don’t know what happened. He was throwing his fastball at 88-89 (miles per hour) and he didn’t use his good slider. When you throw one speed, they catch up with it. You need another trick in your bag.”

It was only the second time all season that Robinson surrendered three runs in a game. The other came on April 9, the second game of the season, and that took 1 2/3 innings.

Isaac Gil will make his first start for the Hoppers in the opener against Hickory.

Alfonzo helps Hoppers squeeze out 3-2 win

Aug. 16, 2016

Tuesday night was a big first step for the Hoppers.

Reeling after losing six of seven games on a road trip, they righted themselves, at least momentarily, with a 3-2 win over Delmarva at NewBridge Bank Park. That keeps them well within range of the top spot in the SAL’s Northern Division second-half standings.

“We know we went 1-6 on the road trip,” said shortstop Gio Alfonzo, who drove in two of the team’s runs. “But we’re only three games back. The season is far from over. We put the trip behind us and our plan is to attack every game like it’s do or die.”

Nineteen games remain in the regular season and the Hoppers face all division opponents, so the opportunity is there to beat the teams ahead of them. But things are going to get chaotic, with six of the seven teams having a chance to win it. Lakewood took over first place Tuesday with a doubleheader sweep of Hickory. The Hoppers trail the BlueClaws by three games.

Here’s how things stand after Tuesday’s results: 1. Lakewood 29-22; 2.Hagerstown and Kannapolis 28-23; 4. Greensboro and West Virginia 26-25; 6. Hickory 25-26.

There’s another way to make the playoffs if the Hoppers don’t win the second half. For that to happen, first-half winner Hagerstown must also win the second half. The second playoff spot would go to the team with the next-best overall record. The Hoppers have a slight edge there with a 64-57 record, followed by Hickory at 63-58, Delmarva at 62-58 and West Virginia at 61-59.

The possibilities are endless and the best thing for the players to do is to concentrate on the game in front of them. And Alfonzo said the focus goes even deeper than that.

“The hitters had a meeting after the last road game,” he said. “We talked about each player doing his job and not trying to do anyone else’s. Whether it’s moving runners over or getting a runner in, we can only do our job. No one can do it for us and we can’t do it for anyone else.”

Alfonzo drove in the go-ahead run twice. After Aaron Blanton opened the fourth inning with a double, the next two batters made outs. Alfonzo’s single scored Blanton to put the Hoppers ahead 2-1.

In the seventh, with the score tied 2-2, Zach Sullivan walked and then stole second. Alfonzo bounced a broken-bat single through the middle to score Sullivan to regain the lead.

“There were two strikes on me and I knew they would try to bust me inside,” Alfonzo said. “I saw a fastball in so I tried to keep my hands inside. I broke the bat, but it died a hero so I don’t feel bad about it.”

Pitching, a Hoppers staple all season despite a revolving door with the staff, was sharp again. Starter Cody Poteet gave up a run in the first inning, then put five shutout innings on the board. He allowed just three hits and one walk while striking out five.

“He didn’t waste any energy,” pitching coach Brendan Sagara said of Poteet. “He pitched to contact and limited the damage in the first inning, then settled into a groove. He only threw 68 pitches in his six innings.”

Unfortunately, Poteet didn’t get the win. His ERA dropped to 2.88, one of the best marks in the league, but he has only four wins to his credit. He left with a 2-1 lead, but Kyle Keller gave up a solo homer in the seventh that tied the game. When the Hoppers regained the lead, Keller pitched a strong eighth, getting two strikeouts and a come-backer.

Marcus Crescentini earned his fourth save by striking out the side in the ninth to preserve the win for Keller. Regular closer C.J. Robinson, who took a line drive off the shin on the road trip, was given the night off.

“We’re trying to develop as many guys to pitch in the ninth inning as we can,” Sagara said. “Crescentini has gotten a lot better since he’s been with us and has really taken to the things we’ve challenged him with.”

Manager Kevin Randel said the Hoppers’ pitching and defense have remained steady.

“We’re looking to get a little flow to the offense,” he said. “Put together some quality at-bats and grind them out. We’re not looking to blow anyone out of the water. We’re just searching for some consistency.”

Outfielder Stone Garrett appeared in his first Hoppers game since June 1. He suffered a thumb injury when former teammate Josh Naylor cut him in a “prank” gone bad. Garrett played in three games with the GCL Marlins prior to rejoining the Hoppers. He went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in his return.

Another new face in Tuesday’s lineup was catcher Gunner Pollman, this June’s 26th-round draft pick by the Marlins out of Sacramento State. He went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. Mason Davis, who played 98 games here last year and a handful in 2014, was the DH and went 1-for-4. He was on the injured list all season.

NOTES: Angel Reyes drove in the Hoppers’ first run with a double … Catcher Roy Morales is rehabbing a hand injury in Jupiter and likely won’t return … Pitcher Steven Farnworth was promoted to Jupiter.

Hoppers can’t overcome a solo home run

Aug. 7, 2016

The smallest things can make the difference in a 1-0 game.

In the second inning of Sunday’s contest at NewBridge Bank Park, Micker Adolpho of Kannapolis hit a fly ball to left field that would have been an out in many ball parks. But it carried over the fence for a home run that a computer program measured at 333 feet.

In the fourth inning, Justin Twine of the Hoppers bashed a pitch that hit off the fence in left-center field, about 380 or 390 feet away. It went for a double instead of a homer.

And those two balls were the difference in a game that Kannapolis won 1-0.

“That’s how thin the margin is,” said Hoppers pitching coach Brendan Sagara. “If Twine’s ball is 10 fee to the left, it’s a homer. And if Adolfo’s hit goes anywhere but left field, it’s a popup.”

The Northern Division standings tightened up after Sunday’s results. Hagerstown is in first at 25-18, Hickory moved into second at 24-18, the Hoppers are third at 24-19 and Lakewood is fourth at 23-19. Only 1 1/2 games separate first place from fourth.

Splitting the four-game series with Kannapolis left the Hoppers 4-3 on the home stand. They take to the road for seven games, starting a three-game series at West Virginia Monday. After that, they move on to Columbia for four games. Of their remaining 27 games, 17 are on the road.

“Pitching has carried us all season,” said manager Kevin Randel. “Now we have to ask them to do it about 25 more games.”

The staff was up to the task Sunday. Starter Ben Meyer made it through four innings, allowing the home run among four Kannapolis hits.

“That’s just a fact of life of playing in Greensboro,” Sagara said of the homer’s moderate distance. “We’ve given up a lot of those.”

Relievers Isaac Gil and Steven Farnworth were perfect, retiring all 15 batters they faced (nine for Gil, six for Farnworth).

“You can’t ask for a better performance from Gil and Farnworth,” Sagara said. “They stayed in control, kept the game moving and gave us a chance to win.”

The problem was that Kannapolis starter Luis Martinez was stellar in six innings. He held the Hoppers to three hits, walked two, struck out seven and allowed only one mini-threat. That came in the sixth, when Kyle Barrett led off with a sharp single up the middle and Isael Soto reached on an error.

There was a large conference at the mound but Martinez stayed in the game. With his adrenaline flowing, the lanky right-hander (6-6, 190) struck out Angel Reyes, Aaron Blanton and Twine to polish off the inning. Two relievers finished the game, retiring nine of 10 Hoppers batters.

It was the sixth win of the year for Martinez and his third over the Hoppers. His line against Greensboro reads: 21 innings, nine hits, two runs, 9 walks, 24 strikeouts.

“He pitches backwards,” Randel said. “He scatters his fastball and pitches off his breaking ball. That’s not our strength. We’re a fastball-hunting team and we don’t hit off-speed well.”

Twine’s double came with two outs and he was stranded at second. The only runner to reach third was Kris Goodman, who walked to lead off the eighth and moved up on two groundouts. Reyes flied to center to leave Goodman there.

The Hoppers must find some offense on the road despite having their lineup depleted of two everyday players because of trades by the Marlins. They have to replace holes at the top of the order, where Anfernee Seymour stole 37 bases and scored 61 runs, and middle of the order, where Josh Naylor drove in 54 runs. While Barrett moves to the leadoff spot, the “auditions” for the cleanup role continue.

NOTES: Barrett had two of the Hoppers’ three hits … Reyes made two errors at first and Blanton made one at third … The Hoppers are finished playing the Intimidators this season … Greensboro wound up winning 11 of the 19 games.