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.

Hoppers win despite another major roster hit

Aug. 6, 2016

The faces keep changing and somehow the Hoppers keep finding ways to win.

After losing the completion of Friday’s suspended game, 5-4, the Hoppers bounced back to beat Kannapolis 5-3 in the 7-inning nightcap Saturday at NewBridge Bank Park.

The net result was the Hoppers gained half a game on Hagerstown in the Northern Division standings. The Suns stand at 25-17, the Hoppers are second at 24-18 and Hickory is third at 23-18.

The day got off to an unexpected start for the Hoppers when the players and coaches got to the stadium and learned that Anfernee Seymour, the leadoff hitter, shortstop and all-around catalyst, had been traded by the Marlins to the Atlanta Braves. Seymour said goodbye to his teammates, watched the continuation of the suspended game for an inning or two, then got into his car and began to drive to Rome, Ga., where he had been assigned to the Braves’ SAL farm team.

“We didn’t believe it and I don’t think he did, either,” said outfielder Kyle Barrett. “He’s the fastest guy in the league and he scores a lot of runs. It’s a shot to the throat, but we’ll be OK. We wish him the best with the Braves.”

The players had assumed that everyone was safe after the Major League trading deadline of Aug. 1. But deals can still be made through waivers and that’s what happened. Seymour and left-hander Michael Mader, who played here last season, were dealt for left-handed relief specialist Hunter Cervenka.

The Marlins are obviously all-in for making the playoffs this season. Their farm system, rated 29th or 30th among major league teams, has been further thinned by the recent trades of pitcher Chris Paddack, first baseman Josh Naylor and now Seymour. The Marlins received all pitchers in return, giving up a break-out 20-year-old pitcher in Paddack (who tore an elbow ligament after the trade and was scheduled for surgery), a 19-year-old slugger and last year’s No. 6 overall draft pick in Naylor, and a 21-year-old speedster with a bright future in Seymour.

The Hoppers’ roster has felt the brunt of these deals. Slots have been filled with bodies, but nowhere near the caliber of Paddock, Naylor and Seymour. All manager Kevin Randel can do is roll with the punches and find ways to fill out the lineup with who’s left.

One constant this season was Seymour, penciled in every day as the leadoff hitter and shortstop. He led with team with 104 games played, 61 runs scored and 37 stolen bases in 50 attempts. He was hitting .252 with 13 doubles, three triples, a homer and 26 RBIs.

Born in the Bahamas, Seymour didn’t start playing baseball until he moved to Florida when he was 14. He was a center fielder and right-handed hitter when the Marlins drafted him in the seventh round in 2014 and turned him into a shortstop and a switch-hitter. That’s a lot for one player to handle.

“The organization is pleased with the progress he’s made,” infield coordinator Jorge Hernandez told me about a month ago. “He has stayed with the plan and it’s paying off. He loves playing and he’s going to be something special. The sky is the limit. He has all the ability to do it and play some day in the major leagues.”

Randel, seeing Seymour on an everyday basis, said he made great strides from spring training through the season.

“He puts in great work and he’s out there every day to get better,” Randel said Friday. “His defense needs to improve and that will come with reps (repetitions). On offense, his left side needs to get better and so does his bunting. But he’s willing to put in the work. He has the potential to be an everyday big-leaguer with his skill set, whether it’s at shortstop, second base or center field.”

So what happens now with the Hoppers’ lineup?

Barrett hit leadoff in the second game Saturday and will likely stay there. Gio Alfonzo will probably get the most playing time at shortstop, with Aaron Blanton sliding over there from third base on occasion.

Barrett, a left-handed hitter, went 1-for-3 and scored a run. He led off the third inning with a hard grounder inside the bag at first base that rolled into the right-field corner. With third base coach Jose Ceballos windmilling his right arm, Barrett streaked in with a triple. He then scored on Isael Soto’s double to give the Hoppers a 3-2 lead. They later added two more runs on a pair of errors on one play by Kannapolis first baseman K.J. Woods.

“I’m comfortable there,” Barrett said of the leadoff spot. “I hit there for three years in college, so it’s nothing new. Those are big shoes to fill but my goals will be the same as his — get on base, be a table-setter and make things happen. I’m not Seymour-fast, but I can run.”

The Intimidators closed to within 5-3 in the fifth inning and had the bases loaded with no one out. Marcus Crescentini relieved hard-luck Justin Jacome and promptly threw two balls to Cody Dailey, then battled back to get a strikeout. Danny Mendick laced a line drive to right field that Soto caught somewhere below his knees, then fired a low one-hopper to home plate. Catcher John Silviano caught it cleanly and tagged Alex Call trying to score from third. The double play ended the inning.

“That was a major play,” Silviano said. “You couldn’t ask anything more of Soto. I saw the throw coming, checked quickly to see the runner and dropped the tag on him.”

Crescentini got the win and C.J. Robinson finished the game in the seventh with his 22nd save, tops in the league.

“He’s getting better and better,” pitching coach Brendan Sagara said of Crescentini, who lowered his ERA to 0.92. “When he came here the word was that he was a thrower but now he’s starting to be a pitcher, using both sides of the plate, changing speeds, things like that.”

Ben Meyer will start Sunday’s 4 p.m. game for the Hoppers, who will play Kannapolis for the 21st and final time this season.

Alfonzo’s single wins for Hoppers in 9th

Aug. 4, 2016

For a player who has made contributions with his defense and as an emergency pitcher, Gio Alfonzo got a chance to do something with his bat Thursday night.

The Hoppers’ super utility player singled to right field to drive in Aaron Blanton in the bottom of the ninth inning, giving Greensboro a 4-3 win over Kannapolis.

Greensboro remains a game behind Hagerstown in the SAL’s Northern Division. The Suns are 24-16 and the Hoppers are 23-17. Hickory is third at 22-17 and Lakewood fourth at 21-18. Thirty games remain in the regular season.

Alfonzo has a win and a save on the mound this season, but he ranked Thursday’s hit as his top moment.

“This has to be No. 1 because I did it with my bat,” he said. “Next comes my first professional home run, then the save or the win.”

For much of the season, Alfonzo’s batting average was almost invisible. As recently as June 18 he had dropped to .128 and on July 28 he was only up to .181. But lately he has been one of the team’s hottest hitters, going 12-for-24 over his last seven games.

“I had to change my mental approach,” Alfonzo said. “I could see how low my average was, so I just tried to relax. I had been doing everything too hard, so I tried to quiet my leg kick and soften everything up.”

On the last at-bat, with Blanton on third base after a double and a wild pitch and no one out, manager Kevin Randel suggested he try a squeeze bunt until he had one strike. Alfonzo showed bunt and took one pitch for a ball, bunted the second pitch foul. With the bunt off, he knew what to expect from Kannapolis reliever Mike Morrison.

“The infield was in, the outfield was in and I was looking to see a curve,” he said. “I was sitting on it and it was the perfect pitch for me to hit. I stung it pretty good.”

Morrison was the first right-hander the Hoppers had seen all night. They hit left-handed starter Johnathan Frebis hard — eight hits and three runs in 3 1/3 innings — but were stymied by lefty relievers Michael Horejsei and Alex Katz, who retired 14 straight batters between them.

Blanton, just off the disabled list (strained back), led off the ninth with a double to left-center, his third hit of the game.

“I was seeing the ball well,” he said. “I looked for a fastball but then I knew he would go off-speed and I hit a slider.”

Sitting and watching his teammates while he was on the DL wasn’t easy for Blanton, so he was eager to return to the lineup.

“I could see he was antsy to get back and that’s a good sign,” Randel said. “He’s been feeling good and he got three hits, had the leadoff double and made a great play at third base.”

The Hoppers’ other runs came on an RBI double by Angel Reyes and a single by Justin Twine in the third inning, and Alfonzo’s RBI double in the fourth inning that tied the game 3-3.

Hoppers pitching was sharp in relief of starter Cody Poteet, who was touched for all three runs before being pulled with two outs in the fifth because of pitch count. This late in the season, everyone’s pitches and innings are being monitored closely.

Steven Farnworth and Ryley MacEachern followed with 4 1/3 innings of hitless relief, with MacEachern picking up the win.

Farnworth began the season as the team’s closer, then was moved into the starting rotation. Now he’s back in the bullpen to better manage his innings the rest of the year.

“The suits and ties (Marlins’ front office) wanted him to build up some innings and I agree,” said pitching coach Brendan Sagara. “The move was for his benefit, to give him a chance to face a lot of different hitters. We know he’s solid in the bullpen and he has pitchability.”

Which means what?

“Basically it’s commanding the ball, reading the swings of the hitters and pitching to the situation,” Sagara said. “It’s keeping the ball in good parts of the strike zone so it’s less likely to be hit.”

NOTES: Reyes and Twine each had two hits … Anfernee Seymour stole second and third bases in the third inning and scored on Twine’s single … Seymour now has 36 stolen bases this season … Outfielder Zach Sullivan went on the DL with a lower back injury … The Hoppers lost a key member of the bullpen when lefty Jose Quijada was promoted to Jupiter … His roster spot was filled by Trey Lambert, who was with Hagerstown earlier this season (2-0, 1.89). He was promoted to Potomac in the Carolina League, then released by the Nationals and signed by the Marlins on Aug. 2 … Former Hopper K.J. Woods had an RBI double and a walk for Kannapolis and struck out twice.

Strong defense helps Hoppers to sweep

Aug. 3, 2016

The hitting was spotty and the pitching kept battling out of tight situations, so defense carried the day for the Hoppers Wednesday.

A number of outstanding defensive plays, plus a total of five double plays, helped Greensboro to a doubleheader sweep of Lakewood at NewBridge Bank Park. The Hoppers took the first game 3-1 and followed with a 4-1 victory in the second.

The results left the Hoppers with a 22-17 record in the second half and moved them one-half game ahead of Lakewood and Hickory, both at 21-17, in the Northern Division. Hagerstown beat Delmarva in a night game, putting the Suns (23-16) in first place by a game over the Hoppers. The regular season has a month to go, so daily changes in the standings are likely.

For the Hoppers, it was important to reverse the recent trend that had seen them drop 14 of 21 games. Thursday they open a four-game home series with Kannapolis (20-19), which trails Greensboro by only two games. Cody Poteet will pitch the opener at 7 p.m.

It was an odd day in some respects. The Hoppers outscored the BlueClaws 7-2 despite being outhit 15-12. Greensboro packed all its runs for the day into two innings, a three-run fourth inning in the opener and a four-run first inning in the second game. That proved to be enough.

Trevor Richards, recently signed by the Marlins out of the independent Frontier League, picked up his second win in the opener. Marcus Crescentini recorded his second save.

“I think I can help by keeping us in games and throwing strikes,” said Richards, who pitched at Division II Drury University in Springfield, Mo. “I’ve learned through experience in college and in independent ball. There are certain things you can control and some you can’t. You have to let it go (if something bad happens) and focus on the next pitch.”

Richards allowed five hits with eight strikeouts and no walks. He acknowledged the defense behind him, which started in the second inning when left fielder Casey Soltis made a leaping catch at the fence.

Lakewood led off the top of the fourth with a double and two singles, which scored a run. Then came a play that may have changed the entire day. With runners on first and second and no outs, Deivi Grullon smashed a grounder that appeared to be headed down the left field line.

But third baseman Gio Alfonzo made a diving stop to his right, scrambled up to tag third for one out and then threw to Angel Reyes at first to nip Grullon and complete the double play. Richards then fanned Carlos Duran to end the inning.

If the ball gets past Alfonzo, at least one run and possibly two score and there are still no outs.

“I had a feeling (Grullon) was going to pull the ball down the line, so I took a half-step over there,” Alfonzo said. “I had already decided if the ball was to my left I would go to second base and if it was to my right I would tag third. I just reacted to the ball. I knew with Grullon running I had time to get him, but I had to let it go right away.”

The play was a momentum-changer and the Hoppers answered Lakewood’s run in the bottom of the inning. Anfernee Seymour beat out a beautifully-placed bunt to led off, moved to third on Kyle Barrett’s single and scored on a sacrifice fly by Reyes. Isael Soto cracked a two-run homer to push the Hoppers in front 3-1.

“I’ve learned that when I bunt the ball softly to third base, right in front of the circle (separating the infield dirt and grass), it will be a tough play and no one can catch me,” Seymour said.

The last defensive gem of the first game came in the top of the seventh when Zach Sullivan sprinted in from center field and made a diving catch against pinch-hitter Brendon Hayden. Sullivan stayed on his knees for a long time and, when he was able to get to his feet, left the game. He suffered a strained back that will require some rest and possibly a precautionary placement on the disabled list. Manager Kevin Randel said he didn’t expect the effects to be long-term.

The second game took a combination of four pitchers to nail down. Joel Effertz made a spot start and pitched the first three innings, followed by newcomer Isaac Gil, Jeff Kinley and C.J. Robinson. The BlueClaws had seven hits but were thwarted by four double plays (Jan Hernandez hit into three of them). Gil wound up as the winner.

“There was a lot of hard contact in the second game,” said pitching coach Brendan Sagara, “but we kept the ball down and the defense was able to make plays. They really helped us out today.”

Lakewood scored in the top of the first but Effertz limited the damage by getting dangerous Damek Tomscha to hit into a double play.

The Hoppers responded right away and again Seymour was the catalyst with a leadoff single. Barrett’s double sent Seymour to third and Soto’s single drove him in. Justin Twine walked to load the bases and bring up John Silviano, in the throes of an 0-for-21 slump.

Strangely, Lakewood played its outfielders shallow, even in right field. Silviano, a left-handed hitter, drove the ball past the right fielder for a double to score two runs with a third scoring on a throwing error to home plate to complete the four-run inning.

“I’ve been struggling to see the ball and rushing my swing,” Silviano said. “So I wanted to slow down and focus on seeing the ball and I got a fastball I could drive.”

Randel made an unusual pitching change in the fifth inning. Lakewood had two runners on base with two outs and Randel brought in the left-handed Kinley to face right-handed hitter Jose Pujols, who had both Lakewood RBIs on the day. Pujols smoked a line drive to left, right at Kris Goodman, who took a couple of steps in, went to one knee and made the catch to end the inning.

“Kinley isn’t really a marchup guy for me,” Randel said, “because he’s better against right-handers than ledt-handers. But that was a rocket Pujols hit.”

Randel took no chances in the seventh, bringing in closer C.J. Robinson. He wasn’t at his sharpest, issuing two four-pitch walks, but got two flyouts and a soft line out to record his 21st save in 21 chances.

“I’ve been having some control issues,” Robinson said, “and my velo (velocity) is down, but I think that’s just because it’s August. I feel fine. I’ve put on five to eight pounds, which I do every year.”

Silviano, the catcher, said Robinson’s pitches were moving even more than usual.

“But he’s always going to get the job done,” he added.

Lakewood takes opener from Hoppers

Aug. 1, 2016

There’s no cavalry coming to rescue the Hoppers.

The team that ripped off 39 wins in 50 games from May 16 to July 9 is struggling lately. Monday’s 2-1 loss to Lakewood was Greensboro’s 14th defeat in its last 21 games.

Lakewood moved into first place in the second-half race of the SAL’s Northern Division, which is suddenly wide open. The BlueClaws are 21-15, Hagerstown is one-half game back at 21-16 and the Hoppers are 1 1/2 games behind at 20-17. Hickory, Kannapolis and West Virginia are all close.

The Hoppers have lost some key pieces from their hot streak. Among the pitchers, Chris Paddack was traded by the Marlins to the Padres (more on him below) and Chuck Weaver is apparently lost for the rest of the season. On offense, first baseman Josh Naylor, who led the team with 54 RBIs, was involved in another Marlins trade, again with San Diego, and is now playing with the Lake Elsinore Storm in the California League.

Those spots have been filled on the roster, but not with players who will provide the same kind of production. More than ever, the Hoppers will need a 25-man effort to stay in the Northern Division race.

“I’m not looking for us to get any help,” said manager Kevin Randel. “You’ve got to do it with the guys you’ve got and they either do it or they don’t. There’s no magic pill for it, no one guy to carry us. We haven’t had that all season. Even Naylor never carried us. We’re the kind of team that has to string hits together, all nine guys in the lineup.”

The Hoppers managed just six hits off three Lakewood pitchers, including three bloopers and one infield hit. Randel recorded only three hard-hit balls all night.

“We can do better than what we’re doing,” he said of the offense.

There was a promising threat in the first inning when the Hoppers loaded the bases with one out. But Roy Morales uncharacteristically struck out (only the 20th time in 57 games). With Justin Twine, who had gone 7-for-9 in his previous two games, at the plate, Lakewood pitcher Alberto Tirado uncorked a pitch that went to the backstop.

Kyle Barrett, on third base, broke for home. But the backstop in NewBridge Bank Park is brick and the ball bounced hard to catcher Deivi Grullon just to the left of the plate. Tirado came in to cover home and took an easy flip from Grullon to tag Barrett standing up to end the inning.

“It’s an instinctual play,” Randel said. “Barrett was off to the races when the ball got past the catcher. He thought the catcher was going to tag him and instead of sliding he veered right into the pitcher’s tag. It’s a tough break, just one of those things.”

The Hoppers did manage a run in the fourth when Twine’s grounder caromed off the foot of Tirado toward first base. Tirado made the play to get Twine as Isael Soto scored from third. But that was it; the Hoppers had only one hit the rest of the game.

When runs are hard to come by, defense and pitching have to be sharp. The defense did its part, turning three double plays and getting a superb catch in center field from Zach Sullivan (jumping to snag a drive at the top of the wall) and a nice diving catch in left by Barrett.

And the pitching was good enough to win most games. Starter Ben Meyer had his longest outing, 5 2/3 innings, giving up a two-run homer to Damek Tomscha in the third that proved to be the difference. Jose Quijada and Kyle Keller combined to finish, allowing no runs and no hits.

“One pitch,” said pitching coach Brendan Sagara. “If (Tomscha) misses by three inches on the barrel, the ball is caught and we might still be playing. Meyer set the tone the way he usually does. He was aggressive to the zone.”

Trevor Richards, recently signed from an independent league, will make his second start for the Hoppers in game two of the series Tuesday at 7 p.m.

NOTES: The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that Paddack is expected to undergo Tommy John surgery and will be lost for 14-18 months … In nine games between Greensboro and Fort Wayne in the Midwest League, Paddack was 2-0 and an ERA of 0.85. In 42.1 innings he allowed 20 hits and four runs with 71 strikeouts and just five walks … Batters were hitting .139 against him.

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