Biggest crowd of season likely on July 4

July 3, 2015

Heading to the traditional July 4 Hoppers game at NewBridge Bank Park?

If you’ve been to one before, you know what to expect. If this will be your first time, be prepared — the house will be packed.

In the 11-season history of the park, this will mark the 10th time the Hoppers will have played at home on July 4. The only year they missed was in 2012, when they were at Kannapolis.

As part of the festivities of the holiday, baseball is just a natural fit. Hot dogs, beer and a double dose of fireworks. What’s not to like?

But don’t expect to get there at 7 o’clock and just walk right in. You need to allow extra time to get parked and navigate through the crowd just to get to your seat, whether it’s in the stands or on one of the banks. And there will be standing room only. This is annually the biggest crowd of the year, sometimes reaching five figures.

Here are the attendance figures of the previous nine July 4 games, ranked from lowest to highest: No. 9 — 8,925 in 2005; No. 8 — 9,309 in 2007; No. 7 — 9,443 in 2011; No. 6 — 9,573 in 2010; No. 5 — 9,680 in 2013; No. 4 — 9,855 in 2014; No. 3 — 10,031 in 2009; No. 2 — 10,034 in 2008; No 1 — 10,260 in 2006.

If you’re curious, the Hoppers have won four and lost five on the July 4 games.

ROSTER CHANGES: The roster will contain a lot of players who weren’t with the Hoppers when the team broke for the SAL All-Star game two weeks ago.

Who’s new? First baseman Erwin Almonte, infielder Taylor Munden, outfielder Travis Brewster and pitchers Jose Velez, Kelvin Rivas and Nick Fuller. In addition, pitcher Kyle Fischer has rejoined the team from the Jacksonville Suns.

Who’s gone? Pitchers Jorgan Cavanerio, Drew Steckenrider and C.J. Robinson to Jupiter and pitcher Scott Squier to Batavia.

Who’s hurt? Catcher Felix Castillo (leg) and second baseman-center fielder Mason Davis (groin) are on the disabled list.

Others? First baseman K.J. Woods is serving a 10-game suspension for a violation of team rules. He missed the nine-game road trip and the 10th game will be July 4.

Hoppers get road tested to begin second half

June 25, 2015

Sooner or later the Hoppers need to turn things around on the road.

They begin their quest to do just that when they open the second half of the South Atlantic League season at West Virginia tonight. It’s the first of nine straight road contests — five against the Power and four at Hagerstown. The Hoppers finally return home July 4 to begin a nine-game stand.

There are no guarantees that things will get better on the road. But if the Hoppers are to to improve their 29-40 showing from the first half, a better road record is mandatory. They were a league-worst 11-24 away from home in the first half. Pulling that up around .500, at least, would be a good place to start.

Why the Hoppers hitters, in particular, struggle on the road has been difficult to pinpoint. Andy Barkett, the Marlins’ hitting instructor for the lower minor leagues, said some of it may be the different routine. At home, hitters can get to the park early and spend extra time in the batting cage. On the road, they don’t have that luxury.

In Greensboro, the players feed off large crowds and a good atmosphere. There’s a certain amount of confidence that comes with just putting on the Grasshoppers uniform. It’s also a cozy park, conducive to hitting. Most other parks in the SAL are larger, turning some NewBridge Bank Park home runs into long outs.

“This is a good park to hit in, and that gives you confidence,” Barkett said. “So when you get to a place that’s a big yard, mentally maybe you’re beat before you get in the batter’s box because you’re thinking it’s hard to get a hit in this place.”

The hitters are young, many of them just a year out of high school, which plays a part in their performance. The first half was full of growing pains, including an introduction to playing baseball on an everyday basis.

“I’ve learned you have to come to the park mentally locked in and be ready to play every day,” said third baseman Brian Schales, who is 19.

Another 19-year-old, shortstop Justin Twine, is learning that he doesn’t have to be the guy who drives in every run. He walked just twice in the first half, something he’s looking to improve.

“I need to get on base and let the big dogs drive me in,” said Twine. “My on base percentage (just .227) needs to be better. I want to draw more walks and get deeper into counts. I have to be patient, wait for my pitch and don’t rush things.”

The players have learned a lot in 70 games. Now they need to translate those lessons into better results.

“We just need to play better baseball — defense, hitting and pitching,” said manager Kevin Randel. “We have to start showing improvement. I want them to win every pitch, win every play and win every day.”

There’s another component, too. The Marlins organization will be watching closely to see who has a strong second half and who doesn’t. Whether or not a player moves up a level in 2016 can depend on the next 70 games.

“You want to continue the development process,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell, “but it’s time to get better and show you can get out of this league. A strong second half bodes well going into next year.”

One hitter going into the second half on a positive note is first baseman K.J. Woods. In the SAL All-Star game in Asheville on Tuesday, Woods hit a two-run homer and a single to help the North Division beat the South 7-5. Arturo Rodriguez collected a single and scored a run and Austen Smith reached on an error and scored a run.

Hoppers ready to get away from the grind

June 21, 2015

The best thing about the first half of the SAL season for the Hoppers is that it’s in their rear view mirror.

Greensboro absorbed a 10-4 thumping at the hands of the Kannapolis Intimidators Sunday afternoon to wrap up the first half. The Hoppers committed three errors, two by normally sure-handed center fielder Zach Sullivan when he dropped fly balls, which led to four unearned runs. The offense scored early for a 3-1 lead after two innings, then managed only one run in the last seven. Starter Tyler Kolek was tagged for eight runs (for unearned) and all three batters he walked in the fifth inning came around to score.

It was that kind of day.

So now the team gets three days off, except for Austen Smith, Arturo Rodriguez and K.J. Woods, who head for the All-Star game in Asheville on Tuesday. The Hoppers will reassemble for a workout in Greensboro Wednesday, then leave Thursday morning to start the second half with a nine-game road trip — five games in West Virginia and four in Hagerstown. They won’t return to NewBridge Bank Park until July 4, traditionally the biggest crowd of the season.

The best thing about starting the second half will be the 0-0 record. The first-half finish of 29-40 — worst record in the league — will be a distant memory.

“I want them to have a good time on this break, take care of their bodies, stay focused and then come back sharp and ready to play,” said manager Kevin Randel.

Randel, who lives in Apex, said he will head home, chill out at the pool, do some yard work and spend time with his wife. But his mind won’t be far from baseball and ways his team can improve.

“We just need to play better baseball — defense, hitting and pitching,” he said. “I’d like to find out what makes these guys tick. We find a groove and then lose it.”

That was a reference to the four-game winning streak the Hoppers fashioned, only to lose their last three games of the first half.

Pitching coach Jeremy Powell plans to take his family to Myrtle Beach for a couple of days. He’s ready to escape from the grind for a couple of days.

“The good news is that we start over and hopefully we can turn the page and get some consistency back,” he said.

Hitting coach Luis Quinones said how a team, and individual players, finish a season is what’s important.

“I trust in these guys to turn it around,” he said. “But they’re the ones that have to do it on the field.”

NOTES: The Hoppers couldn’t contain Kannapolis shortstop Eddy Alvarez, a former U.S. Olympic speedskater. Alvarez collected two hits and two walks, drove in a run, stole three bases and scored four times … K.J. Woods drove in a pair of runs with a double in the first inning … Hickory won the Northern Division and Savannah the Southern Division in the first half to secure berths in the playoffs. Tied with Greenville on the final day of the first half, Savannah beat Augusta 8-5 while the Drive lost to Lakewood 9-3.

Hoppers stifled by Kannapolis 4-0

June 20, 2015

Eighteen half-innings were played at NewBridge Bank Park Saturday night and in 17 of them, no runs were scored.

Unfortunately for the Hoppers, Kannapolis put four runs on the board in the sixth inning and maintained the lead for a 4-0 victory.

Greensboro was held to five hits by a trio of Intimidator pitchers and advanced only one runner to third base all night. Zach Thompson went the first five innings and earned the win, Brad Salgado threw the next three and Matt Cooper finished in the ninth.

“Give them credit,” said Hoppers manager Kevin Randel. “But our at-bats were not great. We were a little flat offensively, they had one big inning and it was game over.”

The Hoppers never got anything going on offense, going three up and three down in five of their at-bats. Only once did they manage two hits in an inning and they drew no walks.

Greensboro’s pitching matched that of Kannapolis for five innings as Jorgan Cavanerio pitched shutout ball. He got the first two outs in the sixth, the second when he bare-handed a bunt and made a strong throw to first.

But then things unraveled, although he could have used some defensive help. Cavanerio gave up a single, threw a wild pitch and hit a batter. Alexander Simon singled in one run, which as it turned out would have been enough to win.

On a ground ball by Nick Basto, third baseman Brian Schales cut in front of a surprised shortstop Justin Twine but couldn’t handle it cleanly. It was ruled an infield hit and loaded the bases.

“It was a tough play for either of them,” Randel said, “but they need better communication.”

Brett Austin, an alumnus of NC State, sliced a drive to right field that got past a diving Zach Sullivan and cleared the bases for a three-run triple. Randel said Sullivan “did what he had to do. It was a catchable ball that tailed away a little. Cavanerio pitched great. The bounces just didn’t go our way.”

Drew Steckenrider, who was scheduled to pitch Friday’s game that turned into a rainout, pitched the last three innings, giving up a hit and three walks and striking out two.

Cavanerio’s performance was better than his stat line, which charged him with four earned runs in six innings.

“In the first five he was good,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell. “He was getting early contact and using his changeup well. He went through their lineup pretty easily.”

The Hoppers, now with a 29-39 record, close out the first half of the season with a 4 p.m. game Sunday. Tyler Kolek (4-2) will get the start.

NOTES: The start of the game was delayed an hour by a heavy shower … Catcher Rodrigo Vigil was promoted to Jupiter and replaced on the roster by Roy Morales, who has been in extended spring training … Reliever Kyle Fischer moved up to Double-A Jacksonville, where bullpen help was needed … Former Hopper Kyle Kaminska, who got the save for Greenville Thursday night, has been promoted to Boston’s farm team in Salem, Va., in the Carolina League … Friday’s rainout will not be made up.

Close play nips Hoppers at the end

June 18, 2015

Call it a gnat’s eyelash or whatever, but there wasn’t much of a margin when the Hoppers’ Justin Twine was called out to end Thursday’s game against Greenville.

The Hoppers had scored once in the ninth inning to pull within 4-3 and had runners on third and first with one out. Greenville pulled its infield in halfway and Twine was jammed on an inside pitch. His grounder was fielded by second baseman Mauricio Dubon, who threw to shortstop Javier Guerra to get the lead runner.

Twine is extremely fast down the line and he seemed to arrive the same time as Guerra’s throw to first baseman Nick Longhi. Base umpire Ryan Barneycastle made an emphatic “out” call at first which ended the game, negating the run that crossed the plate and would have tied the game.

Manager Kevin Randel said his view was blocked by the pitcher, but he thought Twine was safe, judging by the animated reaction of first base coach Jose Ceballos.

“It was a bang-bang play,” Ceballos said, “but I thought his foot touched (the base) before the first baseman caught the ball.”

Of course, to be called safe a runner doesn’t actually have to beat the ball. If it’s a tie, the call is supposed to favor the runner.

Twine let out a big sigh when asked what he thought.

“I thought I (beat it),” he said. “Ceballos was jumping up and down and that got me excited. But there’s nothing we can do about it now.”

The pitcher who got the double-play ball, facing just one batter, was Kyle Kaminska, who pitched for the Hoppers in 2008 and 2009. Back then he was a starter who compiled a two-year record of 14-16. After that, his baseball odyssey took him to Jupiter, Jacksonville and New Orleans in the Marlins system, then Bradenton and Altoona with the Pirates, followed by Portland and Salem with the Red Sox.

Kaminska didn’t pitch in 2014 and now, at age 26, is back in the South Atlantic League with Greenville. Thursday was just his second appearance of the season, and he picked up the save with the double play.

The loss went to reliever James Buckelew, his first of the season against three wins. The left-hander pitched a scoreless sixth but gave up two runs in the seventh. He had not allowed a run in his previous five outings, covering 12 2/3 innings.

Buckelew relieved Jordan Holloway, who made his second start. The right-hander, who just turned 19 on June 13, gave the Hoppers five innings, allowing two early runs. Holloway gave up three hits, walked three and struck out two. He was backed up by two double plays and a nice catch by center fielder Zach Sullivan.

“He settled in,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell. “He’s got to throw more strikes with his fastball but he showed his curve later and that was nice to see. It’s all a new experience and the game is a little fast for him right now. But he kept us in it and gave us a chance.”

NOTES: The Hoppers took two out of three from Greenville, a team Randel called “the best we’ve played this season.” The Drive is tied for first place with Savannah in the Southern Division … Austen Smith’s two RBIs bumped his total to 32 … Sullivan contributed the other RBI … Kannapolis comes to town for three games, starting Friday, to close the first half of the season … Drew Steckenrider will start Friday’s game, followed by Jorgan Cavanerio Saturday and Tyler Kolek Sunday.

Fired-up Woods delivers clutch hit for Hoppers

June 17, 2015

Walk the batter in front of K.J. Woods and you run the risk of giving him the motivation he needs.

Woods shook off a woeful day at the plate to deliver a double that drove in the go-ahead run in the bottom of the eighth inning and propelled the Hoppers past the Greenville Drive 4-2 in NewBridge Bank Park Wednesday afternoon.

After Rony Cabrera singled and was sacrificed to second by Brian Schales, the Drive elected to give an intentional walk to Arturo Rodriguez, who had hit two home runs in Tuesday’s 12-4 win. The move set up a double play but created an unusual matchup with right-hander Mario Alcantara having to face the left-handed Woods.

Perhaps Woods’ day at the plate — two weak groundouts and a called third strike — influenced the decision. But what Greenville didn’t realize was the effect on Woods.

“I took that extremely personally,” Woods said. “I even said something to the umpire about it. It got me fired up.”

Woods drove Alcantar’s second pitch off the top of the wall in right center field to score Cabrera and give the Hoppers a 3-2 lead. They tacked on an insurance run.

“This is a game of failure and I learned from my first three at-bats,” Woods said. “So I planned to hit the ball hard and try to knock someone’s glove off. I took the first pitch just to see (Alcantara’s) delivery. Then he threw me the same fastball in the same spot and I wasn’t going to let him get away with that.”

It was a situation Woods relishes.

“Challenges make the game fun,” he said, “so why not raise the stakes?”

Hitting coach Luis Quinones said Woods had been pulling his front shoulder off the ball.

“He’s got to stay with the pitch, keep his head still and his shoulder in,” Quinones said. “He made the adjustment, got his arm out and sort of whipped the bat. He’s strong enough to hit the ball out of any park.”

Cabrera gave the Hoppers a 1-0 lead in the third with his second homer of the season. Greenville tied it in the sixth but the Hoppers got it right back with Austen’s Smith’s 11th homer, which just dropped over the fence in left field. When the Drive tied things in the eighth, it set the stage for Woods.

“K.J. is a good bat in a lineup, a big presence in the box,” said manager Kevin Randel. “He just flicked his wrists on that homer. The key for him is don’t throw at-bats away and play good defense. He’s getting better at that.”

Hoppers starter Michael Mader pitched into the seventh inning, getting one out and giving up a single before Randel lifted him in favor of C.J. Robinson. Mader gave up five singles and one walk while striking out four.

“He worked ahead in the count, which makes things easier,” Powell said, “and he was getting outs by putting his fastball in the zone.”

Robinson wound up with the win and Josh Hodges got his 10th save with a dominant ninth inning, using nine pitches to get two strikeouts and a routine fly to center.

“He’s done a great job,” Powell said of the converted starter. “He has taken the ball (as a closer) and we’ve ridden him.”

The win was the fourth straight for the Hoppers, who are looking for a strong finish in the first half to build momentum for the second half.

“We’re finally coming together,” Woods said, “and we’re looking forward to seeing how this plays out. There was a lot of frustration. This isn’t an easy game and you take every day as a challenge. You try to stay on an even plane physically, but as far as mentally and putting forth effort, you should be locked in every day.”

The Hoppers can sweep the Drive by winning Thursday’s 7 o’clock game. Jordan Holloway, who joined the club recently, will make his second start. The 19-year-old right-hander gave up five runs in four innings in a loss against Lexington. He features a good fastball and classic 12-to-6 curve but is a raw talent.

NOTES: Five of Greenville’s seven hits came from the top two hitters in the order … Mauricio Dubon had two plus a run scored and a stolen base, and Derek Miller had three hits and an RBI … Smith had an unusual RBI in the eighth inning. With Mason Davis pinch-running at third for Rodriguez, Smith hit a grounder to third baseman Michael Chavis. The throw went to home but Davis beat it for a run. Catcher Jordan Procyshen fired to first base to get Smith, an unusual 5-2-3 putout.

Norwood’s slam, 6 RBIs power Hoppers over Drive

June 16, 2015

Still decorated with the remnants of an obligatory pie tin full of shaving cream in his face, John Norwood stopped to think for a moment Tuesday night.

Do you remember the last time you hit a grand slam?

“I have no idea,” he replied.

Last time you hit two home runs in a game?

“Don’t know.”

Six RBIs in a game?

“I’ve never done that before,” he replied quickly.

It was that kind of night for Norwood. The outfielder had his best game as a professional, hitting a grand slam and adding a two-run homer to power the Hoppers to a 12-4 win over Greenville.

It was the most runs scored by the Hoppers since they put up 14 against Rome on May 10, and only the third time this season they’ve scored in double figures. It was also their third straight win.

“We needed it,” said manager Kevin Randel. “You take one like that and never look back.”

The offense made most of the noise, pounding out 16 hits. Arturo Rodriguez slugged two solo homers among his four hits. Everyone in the lineup had a hit and eight players scored runs.

Equally important was the pitching effort of Luis Castillo, who threw five shutout innings. A relief pitcher for the first 111 games of his career, Castillo was converted to starter recently. After two outings of four innings each, he easily made it through five to qualify for the win.

“He bore down in the first inning to leave runners stranded on second and third, then dominated the rest of the way,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell. “He had an electric fastball that he threw down in the zone for strikes. Early in the game, he used his secondary stuff with a lot of changeups and sliders and that got them off-balance.”

Early on, Castillo lacked fastball command, walking the leadoff hitter and giving up a single to the second. After a groundout moved the runners up, he fanned the next two hitters to get out of the jam. He used the changeup and slider to get two more strikeouts in the third inning and turned to the fastball after that.

Randel said he saw 99 (miles per hour) once on the stadium radar gun and 98 a couple of times. If Castillo was tired in the fifth inning, he didn’t show it, striking out the last hitter he faced with a pair of pitches that registered 97.

“He made it look easy,” Powell said.

Catcher Rodrigo Vigil said Castillo “has a strong arm and he has control. We can do a lot of things when he’s like that.”

This was no slouch team the Hoppers beat. The Drive, a Red Sox farm club, is now tied for first place with Savannah in the Southern Division of the SAL. Left-hander Jalen Beeks brought a 6-2 record into the game and stymied the Hoppers the first three innings.

But things changed quickly in the fourth when Rodriguez led off with a homer to left field to break the scoreless tie. K.J. Woods, Justin Twine and Brian Schales singled to load the bases and bring up Norwood. He unloaded a blast that hit the roof of the maintenance shed behind center field.

“That’s (Giancarlo) Stanton territory,” Randel said.

Norwood has “been working on my rhythm” with hitting coach Luis Quinones and felt confident.

“I got a high fastball and I stayed on it and put a lot of backspin on it,” Norwood said.

That pushed the lead to 5-0. Beeks remained in the game and, in the bottom of the fifth, Rodriguez led off again and tagged him for another homer, this one to left center near the picnic tables on the bank.

After Castillo’s five innings the Hoppers had a 6-0 lead, but reliever Ben Holmes was touched for four runs in two innings to tighten the game. Then Twine and Schales drove in runs in the seventh and Norwood cracked his second homer, a rocket to left field, to make it 10-4.

“I had two strikes and was thinking I might see a breaking ball,” Norwood said, “but he came with an inside fastball and I got the sweet spot on it.”

Norwood, drafted out of Vanderbilt last summer, has been inconsistent this season. He’s hitting just .223 and now has five homers.

“He should be doing better,” Randel said. “He’s shown flashes here and there. He’s got tremendous tools — run, throw, big-time power. Hopefully he’s a late bloomer.”

Quinones said he has been preaching to Norwood to stay within himself.

“He tries to do more than he’s capable,” Quinones said. “I tell him to have some discipline, make the pitcher throw your pitch, not his pitch. Tonight he was sure and quick, patient, and the payoff is good results.”

NOTES: The series continues Wednesday with a 12:30 p.m. game. Michael Mader will start for the Hoppers, who are closing the first half with a six-man rotation … The teams combined for 27 hits and six homers.

Hoppers back home, look for strong finish to first half

June 15, 2015

There’s nothing much the Hoppers can do to make their first half any better in the South Atlantic League standings.

But what Greensboro can accomplish with the six games remaining until the All-Star break is play better baseball to carry over into the second half. The Hoppers play the last six games at NewBridge Bank Park, where they have a 16-13 record. Greenville comes in for three games, starting Tuesday night at 7 o’clock, followed by three with Kannapolis.

“Being home (for the final stretch) is huge,” said manager Kevin Randel in a phone conversation from Lexington. “We play much better at home, so maybe we can get the ball rolling a little bit and finish strong in the first half.”

For the first time in more than a month, the Hoppers have a little momentum. Their 4-1 win at Lexington Monday was their second straight over the Legends. That doesn’t sound like much, but it marked the first time they had won back-to-back games since May 9-10 at Rome.

They salvaged a split in the series after absorbing an 18-7 pounding in the first game and a 6-5 loss in the second game. They rebounded with a 4-2 win in 10 innings Sunday and followed with Monday’s victory. The constant in both games was pitching.

In Sunday’s win, starter Jorgan Cavanerio went six innings and gave up two runs, one earned, with 10 strikeouts and no walks. James Buckelew, Tyler Kane and Kyle Fischer followed with four shutout innings, with Kane getting the win and Fischer and save.

On Monday, Tyler Kolek had his best outing in awhile, pitching five innings and allowing one unearned run on three hits while walking three and striking out four. He earned his fourth win of the season. He was backed up by two shutout innings apiece from Sam Alvis and Josh Hodges, with Hodges earning his ninth save.

“He was throwing strike one early and often,” Randel said of Kolek. “And he was getting his breaking ball and changeup in the (strike) zone. It all starts with pitching.”

Rony Cabrera, Arturo Rodriguez and Austen Smith provided RBIS. No batter is particularly hot, but in the two wins there were contributions up and down the lineup. Justin Twine hit his second homer of the season in Sunday’s 12-hit attack.

Randel said the roster is back to full strength. Smith, Felix Castillo and K.J. Woods all served three-game suspensions as a result of an altercation in a game against Hagerstown over a week ago. All three were ejected, along with the Suns catcher, for throwing punches. When suspensions are handed out, a team has to play with 24 players or even 23.

“We played a man short for seven straight days,” Randel said, “and on three of those days we were two short. It’s tough, but just one of those things you have to deal with. But they’ve all finished up and we’re ready to go.”

Hoppers wind up on losing end, 3-2

June 6, 2015

The Hoppers lost 3-2 and 3-1 to Hagerstown Saturday night, but it wasn’t a doubleheader.

The score of the game was 3-2, with the Suns getting a run off Hoppers reliever Josh Hodges in the top of the ninth. Th 3-1 count was the number of players ejected — three Hoppers and one Sun — after the teams engaged in a massive pushing and shoving scrum in the bottom of the fourth inning.

Hoppers manager Kevin Randel thought the umpires and peacemakers from both teams did a good job of restoring order.

“The only problem I had was they singled out three of our guys and only one of theirs,” Randel said.

The scenario unfolded like this. With the Hoppers down 1-0 and one out in the fourth inning, Austen Smith doubled and Arturo Rodriguez followed with a single. Randel waved Smith around third base as center fielder Dale Carey fielded the ball and fired home to catcher Brett Reistetter.

The throw was in time and Reistetter blocked the plate, as he is allowed to do with the ball in his hand (a catcher can’t block the plate without the ball). Smith banged into him and was called out by home plate umpire Jonathan Parra.

Smith and Reistetter locked up and tussled as their momentum carried them behind the plate. The dugouts and bullpens emptied quickly and things turned into a large, moving mass between home plate and the backstop.

When everyone was eventually separated. Parra ejected Smith and Reistetter, plus K.J. Woods and reserve catcher Felix Castillo from the Hoppers.

“Emotions were running high and the situation escalated pretty quickly,” Randel said. “Those things happen in baseball. I didn’t think it got violent but (Parra) said punches were thrown.”

People in the stands were yelling that Reistetter dropped the ball and Smith should have been safe, but Randel said he couldn’t see if that was the case.

Rony Cabrera went in to replace Woods at first base and Ryan Aper replaced Smith in the lineup, going to right field with John Norwood moving to Smith’s spot in left. Those moves, plus Castillo’s ejection, left the Hoppers with no more position players.

The Suns replaced Reistetter with Jorge Tillero, their other catcher. Tillero doubled in a run in the seventh inning to extend Hagerstown’s lead to 2-0.

After being shut out on three hits for six innings by Suns starter Drew Van Orden, the Hoppers broke through against reliever Robbie Dickey in the eighth. Zach Sullivan drew a one-out walk, Mason Davis reached on an infield error and Brian Schales walked to load the bases.

Cabrera delivered a line drive double down the right field line that scored Sullivan and Davis and sent Schales to third. That tied the score 2-2 and the Hoppers appeared in great position. The Suns brought in Justin Amlung, who struck out Aper and got Rodriguez to pop out, stranding two runners in scoring position.

“We had it lined up to push the winning run across and we didn’t get it done,” Randel said. “We’ll learn how to get those runs across one of these days.”

The Suns reached Hodges for two singles and a sacrifice fly by Brennan Middleton to push across the go-ahead run in the ninth.

Almost overlooked was a fine effort by Hoppers starter Jorgan Cavanerio, who pitched 6 2/3 innings and allowed two runs on six hits.

“He threw great and got better as he went,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell. “He kept them off-balance.”

NOTES: The teams wrap up the series with Sunday’s 4 p.m. game with Ben Holmes starting for Greensboro … Sullivan drew three walks … Norwood was thrown out trying to steal second base in the ninth, ending the game … Parra warned each relief pitch that entered the game to prevent any retaliation … The South Atlantic League will review videos and decide if any suspensions are in order.

Hoppers flirt with no-hitter, end with 6-1 victory

June 5, 2015

NewBridge Bank Park kept its record intact Friday night, but it wasn’t easy.

Greensboro’s home park, now in its 11th season, has never seen a no-hitter. But a patchwork of Hoppers pitchers took one into the eighth inning before a broken-bat single broke it up with two outs. The Hoppers ultimately settled for a 6-1, three-hit win over Hagerstown.

“We got the win, first and foremost,” said manager Kevin Randel. “The other stuff is just icing on the cake. I’m not even disappointed that we lost the shutout because (Conor Overton) got himself out of a jam in the ninth inning.”

It was a rare night when pitching, hitting and defense came together for the Hoppers in what Randel called their best game of the year.

“It started when (shortstop) Rony Cabrera made a nice play in the hole to get the leadoff batter,” he said. “That set the tone right there. We made some other nice plays, too.”

It was Tyler Kolek’s turn to start, but the Hoppers decided to give the big right-hander a “mental break” and pushed his start back several days. That meant they needed a spot starter out of the bullpen and they chose Luis Castillo, hoping he could deliver at least three innings.

Castillo did one better, throwing four innings of no-hit, shutout ball, walking two and striking out six in his longest outing of the season.

“He was fun to watch,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell. “He pitched ahead in the count, and with his plus stuff. He was really efficient.”

After using 55 pitches in his stint, to begin the fifth inning. A starter early in the season, Squier has struggled in his switch to the bullpen.

But things clicked for him in this game. He retired the side in order in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings and got the first two outs in the eighth before Brendan Middleton reached on an error by Cabrera.

Then Hagerstown catcher Jorge Tillero broke his bat on a soft line drive that just got over the glove of leaping second baseman Mason Davis to spoil the no-hitter. Davis put both hands on top of his head in reaction.

“I just couldn’t get to it,” Davis said. “Everybody said I was pretty close. I wasn’t disappointed, but I wanted to keep the no-hitter going.”

Squier said he threw an inside fastball just where he wanted, so he wasn’t displeased with the pitch.

“It’s not what I wanted to give up,” he said, “but that’s part of baseball.”

Squier then got the final out of the eighth to put the finishing touches on four sparkling innings during which he retired 11 straight batters. Randel said it was the best he has seen Squier throw all season. Powell said his fastball control was excellent and his breaking ball was effective.

“I was able to hit my spots tonight,” Squier said. “I changed speeds and my fastball location was the best it has been all year. I’ve been working (with Powell) in the bullpen, so seeing some results is a confidence-booster.”

Overton gave up two hits and a walk in the ninth that loaded the bases with one out. But he extracted himself by getting a groundout, which scored a run, and then striking out the last hitter to end the game.

The Hoppers took their time getting their offense going. Right-hander Joan Baez (seriously, folks) made his first start since being called up from extended spring training. None of the Hoppers had seen him before and he mowed down the first 10 batters before Brian Schales singled for the first hit of the game by either team with one out in the fourth.

Baez faltered in the fifth, walking two batters with one out, and was replaced by Sam Johns, who got the next two hitters without incident.

But in the sixth, the Hoppers flushed Johns. Cabrera opened with a double and Schales singled. K.J. Woods then unloaded his fifth homer of the year, a long drive to right field, for three runs. Arturo Rodriguez doubled, Austen Smith singled and both scored when Davis slashed a double to make it 5-0.

Davis added another RBI with a single in the bottom of the eighth.

“I’ve been hitting too many popups lately,” Davis said. “I want to hit line drives and ground balls.”

Randel said Davis is “a game-changer” who sometimes tries to do too much but is effective when he sticks to his short, compact swing. If he can stay hot, he could be moved from the No. 8 spot to somewhere at the top of the order.

NOTES: Jorgan Cavanerio will start Saturday’s 7 p.m. game for the Hoppers … Randel said he was part of a no-hitter when he played for the Bats in 2004 in Memorial Stadium. Jason Vargas started with Nate Nowicki and Juan Carlos Martinez combining to finish the gem late in the season … The last Hoppers no-hitter was a combo effort on April 24, 2012, at Hickory. Jose Fernandez pitched the first six innings, Greg Nappo went the next two and Kevin Cravey pitched the final inning.

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