Lakewood beats Hoppers in bizarre game

Aug. 30, 2015

There were four games played within nine innings Sunday at NewBridge Bank Park, but any way you added them up they came out to a Lakewood win over the Hoppers, 15-8.

Game No. 1 was the first five innings, when Lakewood’s Ranfi Casimiro hooked up in a pitchers’ duel with Greensboro’s Jorgan Cavanerio. The BlueClaws scored in the top of the first and led 1-0, with Casimiro holding the Hoppers to one hit.

Game No. 2 was the top of the sixth and top of the seventh. Lakewood sent nine batters to the plate in the sixth and scored three runs, all on a homer by Damek Tomscha. In the seventh, the Claws sent 12 men up and scored seven times, pushing their lead to 11-0.

Game No. 3 was the bottom of the seventh and bottom of the eighth, when the Hoppers got eight runs back, four in each inning, to close within 11-8. Arturo Rodriguez hit a home run, Zach Sullivan had an RBI single and John Norwood a two-run double in the seventh. The Hoppers were aided in the eighth by three Lakewood errors within four batters.

Game No. 4 was the top of the ninth, when a grand slam by Lakewood’s Deivi Grullon off the Hoppers’ Jose Velez put the game out of reach at 15-8.

Of the Hoppers’ five pitchers, only Jeff Kinley escaped without damage, pitching an inning without allowing a run. Cavanerio took the loss.

“He had a tough sixth inning when he couldn’t throw strikes,” said manager Kevin Randel.

Casimiro, a 6-8 right-hander, beat the Hoppers for the third time this season. Randel was disappointed with his team’s at-bats against him in the first five innings, when only Brian Schales touched him for a hit.

Oddly, after sitting in the dugout for more than 20 minutes while Lakewood scored seven runs in the seventh, Casimiro came out for the bottom half of the inning and was tagged for four runs.

After cutting the lead to 11-4, the Hoppers added four more, thanks in no small part to the three BlueClaws errors. With no outs, Victor Delgado came in to retire Felix Castillo and Sullivan. Norwood drew a walk to put runners at the corners, bringing up Justin Twine. Norwood inexplicably tried to steal second and was thrown out by Grullon to end the inning.

“We had the tying run at the plate,” said Randel, shaking his head. “You’d think (Norwood) would be a smarter player than that on Aug. 30.”

Lakewood finished with some gaudy offensive numbers, including 18 hits. Drew Stankiewicz went 5-for-6 and scored three runs and Grullon had four hits and six RBIs. A damaging blow in the seventh when Emmanuel Marrero, who was 0-for-3, unloaded a bases-loaded triple with two outs off Eduard Quinonez.

NOTES: The homer by Rodriguez was his 19th and pushed his RBI total to 66, both team highs … Every Lakewood player had a hit and eight of the nine batters scored … The BlueClaws are now 15-7 vs. the Hoppers this season … The series continues Monday night at 7 o’clock with Gabriel Castellanos starting for Greensboro.

Game of frustration on night of celebration

Aug. 29, 2015

It was a night for tuxedos and a night for “almosts” at NewBridge Bank Park Saturday.

The tuxedos were in honor of Miss Babe Ruth, the Hoppers’ black Labrador retriever who will retire after four more games. Crowd motivator Spaz was formally decked out in a tux, Greensboro’s players wore special black tux-like jerseys with a white “shirt” and orange bow tie on the front, and the staff and ushers wore T-shirts with the bow ties.

Babe rode onto the field in a vintage red roadster with team president (and her owner) Donald Moore. Instead of a first pitch, she carried her bucket, destined for Cooperstown, down a red carpet to home plate.

Despite the festivities, before a crowd of 8,673, the game turned into frustration for the Hoppers. Michael Mader pitched well enough to almost win. K.J. Woods almost had an RBI single and later almost had a game-tying home run. Lakewood wound up with a 2-1 victory in a game that only took two hours.

Mader pitched seven innings, allowed just four hits and two runs, good enough to win most games. Instead, he absorbed his 12th loss of the season, only his second at home.

“That happens,” Mader said. “It’s part of baseball. Next time I might give up three or four run and the offense will pick me up.”

After throwing five shutout innings, Mader faltered just enough for the BlueClaws to get to him in the sixth. He retired the leadoff batter on one pitch, but then walked Drew Stankiewicz on four pitches. Damek Tomscha followed with a two-run homer to right center field.

“The four pitches (to Stankiewicz) weren’t even close,” Mader said. “I didn’t even give him a chance to swing the bat. I threw a 1-0 changeup to Tomscha, a little up, and he hit it to the opposite field.”

Mader was efficient, throwing 50 of his 80 pitches for strikes. He is up to 135 and 2-3 innings for the season with start left, in Asheville.

“We would have liked to have sent him back out (for the eighth inning),” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell, “but we had to think about his final start. He threw great tonight; the only hiccup was that four-pitch walk.”

Lakewood starter Tyler Viza was equally as sharp. He surrendered a solo homer to Rony Cabrera in the third inning but only four other hits. He issued no walks and struck out six. Manny Martinez pitched a scoreless eighth and Scott Hockenberry earned his 17th save in the ninth.

“Mader gave us seven strong innings and moved the game along nicely,” said manager Kevin Randel. “We just didn’t give him any help.”

That’s where the “almosts” figured in.

In the first inning, Justin Twine tripled with one out. Woods followed with a line drive to right field that against any other team in the league would have been a single with an RBI. But Lakewood employs an extreme shift against Woods, a left-handed power hitter. The BlueClaws put their shortstop to the right of second base and move the second baseman to short right field. And Woods’ liner went right to where he was positioned.

“I didn’t realize until after the play that they had the shift on,” Woods said. “Justin thought it was a hit, too, because he broke for home plate.”

Brian Schales grounded out to end the inning, stranding Twine on third.

On his next at-bat, Woods said he forced the ball to the left side of the infield and grounded a single past the shortstop. On his third trip he scorched a liner to center that was caught. And on his final at-bat, in the bottom of the ninth, he lifted a long fly to right center that Jiandido Tromp jumped and caught at the fence.

“Right off the bat, I thought he got it (deep enough for a home run),” Randel said. “Their center fielder looked like he thought it was gone. He jumped a little early and I thought he might mess it up, but he made the catch. That’s four solid at-bats.”

Woods, rounding second base when the ball was caught, bounced his helmet in frustration. Surprisingly, he didn’t feel he got quite enough of the pitch.

“It was a breaking ball and I tried to stay back on it,” he said. “But I caught it off the end of the bat and it was in the deepest part of the park. That’s the way things have been going lately.”

Hitting coach Luis Quinones said he thought the ball had a chance to go out but was hit a little too high. As for hitting against the shift, he wants Woods to keep his same routine.

“You have to take the same approach and not change anything,” Quinones said. “If you try to make changes, your swing won’t be the same.”

NOTES: The Miami Marlins have decided to shut down starting pitcher Tyler Kolek for the remainder of the season. The second overall pick in the 2014 draft finishes with a 4-10 record amd a 4.56 ERA in 108 2-3 innings … Jorgan Cavanerio will start the second game of the series for the Hoppers Sunday at 4 p.m. … Mason Davis is on the disabled list and Taylor Munden was recalled from Batavia.

Hoppers win with 3 homers, clutch relief work

Aug. 23, 2015

The third time was a charm for Ryan Hafner Sunday.

In the top of the eighth inning, the Hoppers’ right-handed reliever faced Jonathan Meyer of Hickory in the key at-bat of the game against Hickory. Hafner had surrendered one run in the inning that cut the Hoppers’ lead to 9-6. Runners occupied second and third base with two outs. Meyer had already driven in two runs with a single earlier in the game.

There haven’t been many situations that Hafner, now in his sixth minor-league season, hasn’t faced.

“With two runners in scoring position, I wanted to pitch to my strengths,” Hafner said. “I think I threw him all sliders. He’s a big hitter and I wanted to get him to roll over on one or strike him out. He took one for a strike and swung through one, then fouled off a couple.”

Hafner won the battle by getting Meyer to swing at a slider in the dirt to strike him out. The ball bounced away from catcher Felix Castillo, who recovered to throw Meyer out and end the threat by stranding both runners.

“If he doesn’t get that out, it changes the whole landscape of the game,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell. “It came down to one pitch for him and for us.”

Kyle Fischer took over in the ninth and earned his second straight save, his third in four games and 11th of the season.

Manager Kevin Randel maintained that Hafner got Meyer out three times. One foul ball hit to right field might have been caught but bounced in the Hickory bullpen. The second foul should have been caught by Castillo, who camped under it and dropped it for an error. Hafner finally put Meyer away on the swing and miss.

Drafted back in 2010 by Pittsburgh, Hafner was released early this season and signed by the Marlins. Greensboro is his fourth stop this year, following Bradenton, Batavia and Jupiter.

“I’ve got nothing but good things to say about the Marlins,” Hafner said. “It’s a fresh start and a new set of eyes on me. I treat every day like it might be my last, which it could be.”

Randel said Hafner, 23, brings a presence and some veteran leadership to the Hoppers.

“He’s here to get some things ironed out and get himself back on the map,” Randel said.

Powell said Fischer uses a hard sinker and a hard slider to be effective. He has been used in a variety of bullpen roles but has done well since getting the chance to close after Josh Hodges (12 saves) was promoted to Jacksonville.

“He’s thrown three and four innings, he’s thrown middle innings and now he’s our guy at the end of games,” Powell said.

Fischer threw just 12 pitches to save Saturday’s game, so he knew he could get the call for a second straight night.

“You treat every day as an opportunity and you take advantage of it,” he said. “I’ve had some good luck and some good defense behind me.”

Offense carried the day for the Hoppers, who banged out 13 hits and scored their most runs since they had 10 on July 30 against Kannapolis. For the second straight game they rallied from an early 3-0 deficit. And for the second straight game Mason Davis hit a home run to get them on the scoreboard, this time to make it 3-1.

That came in the fourth inning and was the catalyst for a three-run inning. Brian Schales and Austen Smith singled, John Norwood singled in a run and Ryan Aper doubled in another to tie the game 3-3. In the fifth, Zach Sullivan doubled, was sacrificed to second by Davis and scored on a groundout by Justin Twine.

Greensboro picked up a run in the sixth on Aper’s RBI after Norwood singled and stole second. Davis led off the seventh with a single and Twine belted his sixth homer. Schales singled and Arturo Rodriguez unloaded his 17th homer, a blast that bounced on the concourse behind Natty’s Hill. That capped a four-run rally that broke a 5-5 tie and was the fourth straight inning in which the Hoppers scored.

“Rodriguez is best when he takes a short stride with a compact swing,” said hitting coach Luis Quinones. “A slow body with quick hands works for him.”

The Hoppers took three of four from the Crawdads and finished 4-3 on the home stand.

“It’s always fun to win,” Randel said. “I like the way we’ve been coming back.”

Defense played a big role, too. Aper made a couple of nice catchers in center, Davis stabbed a line drive with a diving catch at second and Norwood made a diving catch in right.

After a day off Monday, the Hoppers travel to Greenville for four games. They return this coming Saturday to wrap up their home schedule with five games against Lakewood.

NOTES: Smith had three hits and Davis, Schales and Aper had two each … Hickory’s Meyer has only 23 RBIs this season but 13 of them have come against the Hoppers … James Buckelew had a blown save but was the pitcher of record when the Hoppers scored four runs in the seventh and wound up with his fifth win … Michael Mader left after six innings with a 5-3 lead but wound up with no decision.

Woods, Davis, bullpen come through for Hoppers

Aug. 22, 2015

Amnesia worked for K.J. Woods Saturday night.

The Hoppers’ first baseman had struck out his first three at-bats against Hickory, but that didn’t matter when he came up in the bottom of the seventh inning. With his team down by a run, the bases loaded and one out, he knew what he had to do.

“It had been a rough night,” Woods said, “but I had to put that behind me. No excuses. The bases were loaded and I had to get the run in.”

He did better than that, smoking the first pitch from reliever Chris Dula to right field for a double that scored two runs and put the Hoppers ahead 5-4. John Norwood followed with a two-run single to make it 7-4, and that wound up as the final score.

“I had faced (Dula) before and figured he would throw a first-pitch fastball,” Woods said. “He threw what I was looking for, kind of a ‘get me over’ fastball right down the middle. I wasn’t going to let that go by.”

Manager Kevin Randel said “that’s the first time I’ve seen K.J. with an aggressive swing in awhile. He’s been real passive lately.”

Hitting coach Luis Quinones said Woods, who has struck out six times in the last two games, has been taking his eye off the ball and pulling off the pitch.

“When he came back to the dugout after that double, I told him I liked that, that he had to take it one at-bat at a time,” Quinones said. “You get four at-bats in a game, and when your opportunity comes it doesn’t matter what happened before.”

The four-run rally completed the Hoppers’ comeback from a 3-0 deficit in the top of the third inning. Mason Davis got things going offensively with a two-run homer, his fifth of the season, and he later added an RBI single that tied the game.

“I just wanted to put the ball in play and make something happen,” Davis said. “I caught it pretty good and it got out.”

Davis made a key contribution in the winning rally. After Austen Smith and Ryan Aper drew walks, Davis knew what he would be called upon to do, despite the fact that he was 3-for-3 with three RBIs. He laid down a successful sacrifice bunt to move the runners to second and third. That forced the Crawdads to walk Brian Schales — it wasn’t four wide pitches but they didn’t give him anything to hit — to load the bases. Woods then delivered the go-ahead hit.

“I wanted to make sure I got a good pitch to bunt,” Davis said. “And I wanted to be sure I did it right. We practice bunting a lot, but if you change one little thing in a game you won’t get it down.”

Starter Tyler Kolek struggled, although he got out of a bases-loaded jam with no outs in the first inning. But he walked five batters, gave up five hits and had thrown 91 pitches, only 50 for strikes, when he was removed in the top of the fourth with two outs.

“He has to get his fastball in the zone more often,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell. “He used his secondary stuff well when he could. He did a good job in the first inning but couldn’t build on that.”

Kelvin Rivas relieved and struck out the next batter to end the inning, then pitched the fifth and sixth innings, allowing an unearned run. Cody Harris threw a one-two-three seventh, Jose Velez pitched a shutout eighth and Kyle Fischer did the same in the ninth for his 10th save. Harris got the win, his first of the season.

“The bullpen has done a great job for the last few weeks,” Powell said.

The game had some bizarre aspects, none more than the bottom of the sixth inning. With one out, Norwood hit a sinking liner to right field that Hickory’s Jairo Beras appeared to trap. Norwood was called out by plate umpire Alex Trujillo. First base coach Jose Ceballos argued emphatically and was ejected, bouncing his helmet off the turf. Randel went out to argue, then Trujillo huddled with base umpire Ronnie Whiting and reversed the call, giving Norwood a single.

“I’ve seen a lot of calls reversed this year,” Randel said. “It’s weird.”

Randel had to make a host of defensive changes when second baseman Rony Cabrera suffered a spiked wrist on a play in the third inning. Davis moved from left field to second, Eric Fisher went from first to left field and Austen Smith entered the game to play first, although he trotted out to left field by mistake before things got straightened out.

“I was throwing everybody all around the field,” Randel said.

Finally, after the bottom of the third, Davis tried to take his position at second base when he fell over Yogi, the black Labrador who chases the ball shot into the outfield.

“I saw him coming and tried to get out of the way,” Davis said. “I changed direction and he did, too. I changed again and so did he and I fell over him. I wasn’t hurt.”

NOTES: Cabrera said he was OK, although Randel will wait to see how his wrist feels before deciding on whether to play him Sunday … The teams wrap up the series with a game at 6 p.m. instead of the normal 4 o’clock Sunday start because it will be televised on Channel 48 … Michael Mader will start for the Hoppers.

Hickory pitching shuts down Hoppers 3-1

Aug. 21, 2015

There was no mystery to Friday’s game at NewBridge Bank Park.

Hickory pitched a little better, hit a little better and came away with a 3-1 win over the Hoppers, evening the series at one game apiece.

The Hoppers were held to four hits by a trio of Crawdad pitchers, who combined for 10 strikeouts and just one walk. Starting the game was Dillon Tate, the Texas Rangers’ first-round pick (fourth overall) in the June draft. Selected out of UC Santa Barbara, Tate signed for $4.2 million.

The Rangers are being extremely careful with Tate. The right-hander pitched in two games with their farm team in Spokane, going an inning in each one. He joined Hickory and pitched an inning in his first game, then went two innings against the Hoppers, retiring all six batters with his old-school, high leg kick delivery. He has started each of the four games so he can stick to his pre-game routine.

Left-hander Brett Martin took over for the Crawdads in the third inning and throttled the Hoppers with four hits and one run, striking out eight, over the next six innings to pick up the win. The Hoppers haven’t solved Martin this season. In two appearances against them he has thrown 13 innings, allowing nine hits and three runs while fanning 13.

Greensboro’s lone run came in the fourth inning when Brian Schales doubled and scored on a single by Arturo Rodriguez. But Martin slammed the door after that. Scott Williams earned his eighth save for Hickory with a one-twp-three ninth that included two strikeouts. In the last four innings, Mason Davis was the only Hoppers baserunner, reaching on a walk.

“It was a quiet night,” said manager and third base coach Kevin Randel.

The Hoppers got a solid starting effort from Enderson Franco, who allowed one unearned run in six innings. And Franco had no one to blame but himself for that run. In the fourth inning, Hickory’s Luke Tendler (N.C. A&T) grounded to first baseman K.J. Woods. Franco ran over to take the flip from Woods but dropped the ball. Tendler reached second on the play and eventually scored on a sacrifice fly.

“His fastball was erratic so he used his off-speed stuff,” pitching coach Jeremy Powell said of Franco’s work.

Reliever Jeff Kinley, who had pitched eight scoreless innings in three previous games for Greensboro, retired the side in order in the seventh. But he was touched for a leadoff double in the eighth that led to a sacrifice fly, and in the ninth Jairo Beras belted a home run. Kinley wound up with the loss.

NOTES: John Norwood stole his 31st base for Greensboro, putting him in seventh place on the all-time Hoppers list … Woods struck out three times for the third time in the last five games … The teams play Saturday at 7 p.m. with Tyler Kolek starting for the Hoppers.

Schales the catalyst as Hoppers down Hickory

Aug. 20, 2015

While the second half of the season has been forgettable for the Hoppers, it has become memorable for third baseman Brian Schales.

He continued his hot hitting Thursday night, going 3-for-5 with a homer, three RBIs and three runs scored as the Hoppers beat Hickory 8-6. It was the most runs he’s scored in a game this year and it tied his high for RBIs.

“He’s learning how to hit a little bit,” said manager Kevin Randel. “He has turned it on in the second half.”

After scuffling through the first half with a .216 average, Schales is hitting .317 in the second half, bringing him to .262 on the season.

“I was chasing pitches in the first half and got away from my approach,” he said. “Now I’m more selective. And I’ve been doing a lot of work on the (batting) tee.”

Schales had an RBI on a blooper that fell in for a single in the second inning, added another on a solid line drive in the fourth and unloaded his fourth homer of the year — oddly, his first at NewBridge Bank Park — in the sixth.

Hitting coach Luis Quinones agreed with Schales about being more selective.

“His swing is more level and he’s swinging at his pitches now instead of the pitcher’s pitches,” Quinones said. “He changed his grip on the bat so it makes his wrist looser and it comes through like a whip.”

Schales was the catalyst but had help. Mason Davis had two hits and scored twice, Arturo Rodriguez had a two-run double and K.J. Woods drove in two runs with a single. Hickory chipped in with three errors, which led to four unearned runs.

The Hoppers built a 7-1 lead through four innings before the Crawdads started pecking away, scoring in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth innings to whittle the lead to two runs.

The first three Greensboro pitchers — Gabriel Castellanos, Kyle Keller and James Buckelew — gave up only six hits but issued nine walks. They threw 153 pitches, but only 81 for strikes. Castellanos, who wound up with his first win, walked five, was called for a balk and threw a wild pitch. Both he and Keller walked in runs with the bases loaded.

Kyle Fischer brought some order to the game on the pitching end, relieving Buckelew with two outs in the eighth and getting a strikeout, then getting his ninth save with a shutout ninth.

“We needed every bit of our offense,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell. “It makes it hard when you can’t throw strikes. Castellanos settled down a little bit (retiring six straight in the third and fourth innings) and that helped.”

The Hoppers wiggled out of some jams, stranding 10 Crawdad runners. And left fielder Eric Fisher made the play of the game with a running catch near the wall down the left field foul line with the bases loaded in the sixth inning.

“He made a basket body catch with the bases juiced that saved the game for us,” Randel said.

Schales ended the game with a defensive play he makes look routine on a slow roller to third base — charge, scoop and throw.

“That’s a do or die play because if you wait on the ball he’s going to be safe,” he explained. “We work a lot on plays like that in practice.”

NOTES: Luke Tendler, who played at North Carolina A&T, hit a two-run homer for Hickory and now has 10 RBIs against the Hoppers this season … Greensboro won for only the fourth time in 14 games against the Crawdads … The teams play again Friday with Enderson Franco the starter for the Hoppers.

Hoppers fall in extra innings again

Aug. 19, 2015

Sometimes just battling hard doesn’t turn out to be enough.

The Hoppers came from behind twice to tie the game against Greenville Wednesday but couldn’t do it a third time and wound up with a 7-5 loss in 10 innings. It was their second extra-innings loss to the Drive in three days (7-6 Monday).

“We kept fighting and battling and surviving,” said manager Kevin Randel. “We just didn’t survive long enough.”

The Drive put the Hoppers in a quick hole with a three-run first inning that included a home run, a double and a two run homer by consecutive batters Then starter Jorgan Cavanerio regrouped, retiring 13 in a row at one point, and allowed only one run in the next six innings.

“He got behind in the count on all three hitters and elevated his fastball,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell. “Then he settled in and really used his stuff well.”

The Hoppers got back-to-back homers from John Norwood and Justin Twine in the fourth to close the gap to 3-2. Greenville added a run but the Hoppers scored twice in the fifth, including an RBI single from Arturo Rodriguez, to tie the game 4-4.

Ryan Hafner was tagged for a run in the eighth but Rodriguez drilled his 16th homer, and sixth in his last 10 games, in the bottom of the inning to tie it again.

The Drive put two runs on the board in the top of the 10th that the Hoppers couldn’t answer. One of them came on Andrew Benintendi’s second homer of the game. Jose Diaz, the 32nd different pitcher to wear a Hoppers uniform this season, gave up the runs and took the loss.

Greensboro had some chances to snatch the win. With two men on and one out in the eighth, Felix Castillo hit into an inning-ending double play. In the ninth, Zach Sullivan led off with a walk and moved to second on Rony Cabrera’s sacrfice. But Brian Schales fouled out and, after K.J. Woods drew an intentional walk, Rodriguez flied out deep to center field.

“We had some opportunities but we couldn’t get the big hit,” Randel said.

Two high-profile Greenville players had big games. Benintendi, drafted out of Arkansas by the Red Sox as the seventh overall pick in the first round this June, was playing in his second game with Greenville. He slugged nine homers in 35 games at Lowell in the New York-Penn League. He had a two-run homer off Cavanerio in the first to go with his homer in the 10th.

Yoan Moncada, the Drive’s 20-year-old second baseman, had a single, double, an RBI, two runs scored and two stolen bases (giving him 39 for the season). He left his native Cuba, with the government’s permission, in 2014 to pursue his baseball career. The Red Sox won the bidding war, signing Moncada for $31.5 million. Because that sum exceeded Boston’s international pool money, it had to pay another $31.5 to Major League Baseball, meaning the Red Sox have $63 million invested in him.

NOTES: Norwood’s homer was his 13th and Twine’s was his fifth … Twine had three hits and is 13-for-37 over his last nine games with five multi-hit games … Rodriguez leads the team with 56 RBIs … The Hoppers begin a four-game series with Hickory Thursday night at NewBridge Bank Park … Gabriel Castellanos will start for the Hoppers … The Crawdads won the Northern Division’s first half pennant to qualify for the playoffs.

Smith’s HR, Mader’s pitching carry Hoppers

Aug. 18, 2015

It was a long time between home runs for the Hoppers’ Austen Smith, but he remembered the last one he had hit prior to Tuesday’s game at NewBridge Bank Park.

“It was at home about two months ago,” Smith said. “It feels like seven years ago.”

Smith hit his 13th homer of the season on July 7 against Hickory. His 14th came 38 games later against Greenville, a two-run shot in the second inning that helped propel the Hoppers to a 5-1 victory that ended a seven-game losing streak.

It was also encouraging that Smith didn’t hit a fastball for the homer. He has struggled with breaking balls and off-speed pitches but found one to his liking this time.

“It was a changeup,” he said. “I’ve been seeing those better lately. Off the bat I knew it had a chance.”

Smith’s homer would be all the support needed for starter Michael Mader, who allowed one run in seven innings and picked up his sixth win of the season. All of them have come at home, where he has lost only once. On the road, Mader is 0-10.

“It’s a stumper,” he said of the disparity. “I can’t explain it. I feel very comfortable at home and lately I’ve noticed how much better my record is here.”

The performance was no surprise to pitching coach Jeremy Powell.

“We’ve seen it before,” Powell said. “It’s a matter of consistency.”

Powell said Mader threw his breaking ball and changeup for strikes early in the game, which set up his fastball after the first time through the Greenville lineup.

“They’re aggressive,” Mader said of Greenville’s hitters. “I felt I had a good changeup and curve ball early and they were missing it pretty badly, so I kept throwing it. Then I was able to use the fastball and get them out with the third or fourth pitch.”

Mader, working at his usual quick pace, threw 85 pitches, 57 of them for strikes. Relieving him to start the eighth was Leurys De La Rosa, who arrived three hours before game time from the Gulf Coast League to bolster the Hoppers’ bullpen. Using the same quick tempo as Mader, De La Rosa gave up a double to the first hitter he faced, then retired the next six batters to finish the game, throwing 20 of 27 pitches for strikes.

The Hoppers had used four relievers for two innings each in Monday’s 13-inning loss, so the bullpen was thin and De La Rosa provided a big lift.

“He did a great job when we needed it,” Powell said. “After that double, he retired the next six pretty easily. He threw strikes with a good slider.”

The Hoppers didn’t have a big night offensively, but three of their six hits figured in the scoring. Along with Smith’s homer, Arturo Rodriguez hit a solo homer and Justin Twine drove in a run with a solid double in the gap in right-center. Twine added another RBI with a deep sacrifice fly to score Rony Cabrera.

“That’s one of the better games I’ve seen Twine at bat,” said manager Kevin Randel.

Smith also contributed a nice sliding catch of a line drive to left field. It was his 34th game in the outfield this season, although he’s not a total novice.

“I played there in high school and some my freshman year in college (Alabama),” he said. “Left field isn’t that difficult to play. The ball was hit by a left-hander (to the opposite field) and I knew it would be tailing away. I think it’s the second or third sliding catch I’ve made.”

Asked which was more satisfying, Smith said “definitely the homer. The past three or four games I’ve been getting my offensive rhythm back.”

Perhaps Smith is starting to regain some of the form that enabled him to hit .270 with 11 homers and 32 RBIs in the first half of the season, good enough to make the SAL All-Star game.

“He’s not where he was,” Randel said. “But he had a good series in Savannah (3-for-8) and it’s good to see him squaring up some balls. Maybe launching one will help get him going.”

The teams wrap up the series Wednesday with a 4 p.m. game. Jorgan Cavanerio will start for the Hoppers.

Hoppers fall to Greenville in 13 innings

Aug. 17, 2015

When things are going bad ….

Back in NewBridge Bank Park after losing six straight road games, the Hoppers played 13 innings Monday night and would up on the short end of a 5-4 score against Greenville.

Things looked good in the bottom of the first when K.J. Woods cracked his 18th homer of the season, a two-run blast that propelled the Hoppers to an early lead.

But the Drive rallied in the third inning. Greensboro starter Tyle Kolek hit the leadoff batter and surrendered two singles to load the bases. The Drive’s Danny Mars singled to short center to score one run and it appeared the bases would remain loaded. But the ball rolled under the glove of normally sure-handed center fielder Zach Sullivan for an error and two more runs scored with Mars winding up on third base. A wild pitch by Kolek allowed Mars to score and push Greenville’s lead to 4-2.

The Hoppers tied it in the fourth on a double by Austen Smith, a single by John Norwood, a Greenville error and Zach Sullivan’s RBI single.

And that’s where the scored stayed. Hoppers pitching held the Drive scoreless for nine straight innings. Kolek put zeroes up in the fourth and fifth and the bullpen was superb with Kyle Fischer, James Buckelew and Nick Fuller throwing two shutout innings each. Jose Velez added another in the top of the 12th.

Velez got unlucky in the 13th, though. With one out, T.J. Watkins lifted a high fly down the right field line. Right fielder Ryan Aper, second baseman Mason Davis and first baseman Austen Smith all converged on the ball but nobody took charge. It fell in fair territory and Watkins wound up with a triple.

Velez fanned Carlos Mesa for the second out. Then Hector Lorenzana hit another high fly to right that Aper made a diving attempt for but couldn’t haul in as Watkins scored the go-ahead run. The Hoppers went down in order in the bottom of the 13th, with Woods taking a called third strike to end the game.

The best chance for the Hoppers to score came in the 10th inning when Davis led off with a single and moved to second on Rony Cabrera’s sacrifice. Brian Schales drew a walk, but Woods hit into a double play to end the threat.

The teams play the second game of the series Tuesday at 7 p.m. with Michael Mader starting for the Hoppers.

Woods provides another dramatic moment

Aug. 9, 2015

K.J. Woods has developed a flair for the dramatic this season.

The big first baseman ripped a walk-off grand slam homer Sunday to lift the Hoppers to a 7-4 comeback win over Kannapolis, their third straight victory.

It’s not the first time Woods has delivered a hit in the spotlight. He drilled two homers in the exhibition game against the Marlins in April and slugged a homer in the South Atlantic League All-Star game in June. Many of his other hits and homers have come in clutch situations.

“You live for those opportunities and you want to take full advantage of them,” Woods said with a wide smile. “You dream about walk-off homers when you’re a kid and when you hit a grand slam to win a game, well, it doesn’t get much better in baseball.”

This was the second straight comeback win for the Hoppers. They were down 4-0 and 6-2 Saturday before winning it 7-6. Woods had a three-run homer in that one to pull them within one run.

For six innings Sunday, they were stymied by Kannapolis starter Zach Thompson, who shut them out on three hits. But the Intimidators’ bullpen proved much more vulnerable.

Down 4-0, Arturo Rodriguez got the Hoppers going with a leadoff homer off Brad Salgado in the seventh inning. Later in the inning, Zach Sullivan doubled in another run to cut the lead to 4-2. In the eighth, with two outs and nobody on, Rodriguez delivered another homer, off Kelvis Valerio, to shave the lead to one run.

Ryan Aper began the ninth against Connor Walsh by striking out. But the ball popped away from catcher Brett Austin, something that plagued the Intimidators the whole series, and Aper reached first safely. Sullivan took a called third strike but Mason Davis was hit by a pitch and Rony Cabrera walked to load the bases.

Kannapolis brought in left-hander Ryan Riga, making his first appearance for the Intimidators. He threw a first-pitch strike to Woods, then craned his neck as Woods connected on the second pitch and drove it over the right-field fence to end the game.

“I watched him warming up,” Woods said, “and he was throwing his curve in the dirt, so I didn’t expect him to throw that. His fastball was up during warmups. I took the first pitch, a fastball, just to see what he had. He threw the same pitch again and left it up and I got the job done.”

Woods said it doesn’t matter if the pitcher is right- or left-handed because “he’s still got to throw the ball over those 17 inches (the width of the plate).”

Manager Kevin Randel couldn’t remember ever seeing a walk-off grand slam before.

“It’s good to see us playing better baseball,” he added. “You see that late in a season with a team that’s been struggling. They realize their numbers aren’t going to change that much so you just go play baseball, you compete and you give your best every game.”

With scheduled starter Jorgan Cavanerio pitching in Jacksonville, the Hoppers cobbled together a spot start with relievers Kelvin Rivas, Cody Harris, Jeff Kinley and James Buckelew. Buckelew retired the side in order in the top of the ninth and wound up as the winning pitcher, courtesy of Woods’ homer.

Kinley, an unknown to the coaching staff, joined the team from the Gulf Coast League, arriving by plane Sunday morning and getting to the ballpark about 11:30 a.m. Pitching coach Jeremy Powell told him to be ready and Kinley entered the game in the sixth inning. What surprised everyone was the three shutout innings he delivered, allowing one hit and striking out five.

“That was way more than we expected,” Powell said. “We were just figuring out how to get through the game. He was efficient and threw strikes, which was a huge bonus.”

Using his fastball to set up his changeup and slider, the left-handed Kinley had little trouble with hitters he had never seen in a park he had never been in, delivering 24 strikes in 31 pitches.

“I just wanted to go out and play like any normal game,” he said. “As a reliever, I wanted to pound the zone early.”

Kinley pitched parts of five seasons at Michigan State, getting a medical redshirt after he was limited to nine games because of blood clots in his junior season. He saved 20 games in his career, including a school-record 13 in 2014.

The Marlins drafted him in the 28th round this summer and sent him to Batavia, where he was knocked around in five games. Sent to the GCL, he pitched in five more games with a 2-0 record and 0.84 ERA.

“I didn’t throw well in Batavia,” Kinley said, “partly because I took close to a month off after the college season. I needed more innings to get the feel back and got them in the GCL.”

The victory enabled the Hoppers to take three of four from Kannapolis, the first series they have won since winning two of three against Greenville June 16-18. It also gave them a 4-3 record on the home stand.

NOTES: Woods has 17 homers and Rodriguez 13 this season … Jeff Kinley is not related to Tyler Kinley, who pitched here last season … Ironically, Riga is from Ohio State, the Big 10 rival of Kinley’s Spartans … After the game the Hoppers got on the bus and headed to Lakewood, where they open a three-game series Monday … After a day off, head to Savannah for three more.


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