Mistakes cost Hoppers in loss to Power

May 3, 2015

There wasn’t much room for error Sunday afternoon, so the mistakes the Hoppers made proved costly in a 4-2 loss to West Virginia.

The offense only mustered five hits against three Power pitchers, who were aided immensely by center fielder Elvis Escobar. The Hoppers couldn’t get anything over or past Escobar, who ran down three long drives, two hit by Austen Smith and another by Ryan Aper.

The pitching again flirted with disaster all day, issuing six more walks to push the total to 17 free passes given to Power hitters in three games. Greensboro pitchers continued to wiggle out of trouble with men on base, but one of the walks, by James Buckelew, finally came around to score in the ninth inning. That gave the Power an important insurance run, making a comeback more unlikely.

What hurt the Hoppers most was some bad base-running. In the fifth inning, after John Norwood doubled in a run, he was picked off second base by Power starter Alex McRae. Instead of having a runner in scoring postion with one out for Justine Twine, there was nobody on base with two outs and Twine flied out to end the inning.

In the seventh, Aaron Blanton drew a one-out walk, stole second and advanced to third on an error by Power shortstop Cole Tucker. Aper, who reached on the error, was picked off by reliever Jake Burnette, an easy out when he tried to step back to the bag rather than dive. Zach Sullivan grounded out to end the inning.

“They were both awful plays,” said manager Kevin Randel. “But the worst was the play at first because we had the tying run on third with less than two outs. That was the big one, the blow to the kidneys.”

Starting pitcher Tyler Kolek battled his way through the first three innings, extending his streak of scoreless innings to 13. But Chase Simpson led off the fourth with a home run and the Power added two more runs to jump in front 3-1. Kolek came out after that and wound up with his first loss of the season.

“He didn’t throw enough quality fastballs,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell, “and that backed him into a corner on the counts. It’s a game of adjustments and you’ve got to make adjustments quicker. He competed well without his best stuff.”

Sam Alvis pitched three hitless innings, although he walked two, and Buckelew finished.

The Hoppers can win the series with a victory in Monday’s 7 o’clock game with Scott Squier on the mound.

“I felt like we should have won the game,” Randel said. “If we play (Monday) the way we did today, we won’t have a chance. Maybe we got it out of our system.”

NOTES: Aper was added to the roster and started in center field when Casey Soltis (elbow) was put on the disabled list … Norwood had two of the Hoppers’ five hits … Nick Neumann recorded his fourth save for the Power … The Hoppers’ record slipped to 11-12.

Hoppers pitchers respond well to pressure again

May 2, 2015

Grasshoppers pitchers tempted fate for the second straight game Saturday, but once again they worked their way out of it.

Four pitchers combined to strand 11 West Virginia runners in a 4-1 Greensboro win. That came on the heels on Friday’s 3-2 win in which 11 more Power runners were left on base.

Jose Adames started and hurled five scoreless innings, finishing on a strong note by retiring the side in order in his last inning, the only time all night the Hoppers managed that. Jose Arias and Kyle Fischer combined for three more shutout innings.

Josh Hodges closed things down, in a non-save situation, and was touched for the only run on a bloop double. With runners on second and third, he finished by fanning the last hitter for his third strikeout of the inning.

“That’s the name of the game, pitching with runners on base,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell. “That’s a difference-maker, seeing what you can do under pressure.

“Adames was electrifying, pitching down in the zone and elevating when he needed to. It was a great bounce-back for him after his last two starts.”

Powell praised the way catcher Rodrigo Vigil called the game and handled the pitchers.

“We mixed up the pitches and they did a good job of keeping the ball down in the zone with good location,” Vigil said.

One thing the Hoppers want to clean up is walks. They issued five Saturday after giving out six Friday.

“That has hurt us all year,” Powell said, “so we might be walking on the edge a little too much. But our pitchers compete and battle under pressure.”

The Hoppers bunched all their scoring in the fourth inning, when Vigil doubled in two runs and John Norwood followed with a two-run homer. Both blows came off Power starter John Sever, who had cruised through the first three innings.

“I saw the ball well today,” said Norwood, who also had a double. “I just wanted to get the bat head out and not try to do too much, for once. I made sure I got my front foot down and used my hands.”

Manager Kevin Randel pointed to a defensive play by Aaron Blanton as particularly important. Although he’s the team’s utility infielder, Blanton found himself in left field for this game because two of the Hoppers’ four outfielders weren’t available. Randel said he could have used Austen Smith, who played one game in left this season, but decided on Blanton for more speed.

“I was told in batting practice,” Blanton said. “The last time I played out there was in high school.”

His speed came in handy in the sixth inning. With Power runners on first and second with two outs, Elvis Escobar hit a slicing line drive toward the left field corner. Blanton made an excellent running catch to save a double and two runs.

“I was a little nervous about the wall,” Blanton said, “but I got a good read on the ball.”

That catch earned the approval of center fielder Norwood.

“I’ve never seen him play left field,” Norwood said, “but he’s got some wheels and he made a good play.”

NOTES: The Hoppers evened their record at 11-11 as Adames picked up his first win of the season … Justin Twine and Arturo Rodriguez joined Norwood with two hits … Tyler Kolek will start Sunday’s 4 p.m. game, looking to extend his streak of 10 consecutive scoreless innings in his last two starts.

Hoppers chill Power behind Mader, Castillo

May 1, 2015

It’s not the easiest thing for a baseball team to endure a 55-minute delay to start a game.

And then it’s not easy to go out and play in 51-degree weather.

The Hoppers managed to push those inconveniences aside Friday night and open a four-game series against the West Virginia Power with a 3-2 win at NewBridge Bank Park.

“Nobody wants to be out there, so it’s who wants it more,” said manager Kevin Randel. “It’s hard to keep the kids ready to play. Seven o’clock comes and they’re supposed to be playing. When there’s a delay they don’t know what to do.”

Starting pitcher Michael Mader came back inside the clubhouse, listened to some music and when the call came to get ready he went outside to stretch and warm up. He didn’t notice the 51 on the temperature sign in center field, a figure he didn’t often see growing up in Marianna, FL.

“I think the coldest weather I’ve pitched in was probably the season opener at Delmarva, when it was 44,” he said. “Tonight it never got cold enough that I couldn’t feel my hands.”

Mader has been tagged with the nickname “Rain Man’ because four of his starts have been delayed by rain and another was postponed a day. He shook things off Friday and delivered five scoreless innings to earn his second victory. It was his third straight strong start and he now has pitched 15 straight shutout innings.

“I’m starting to get consistent command of my fastball from the stretch,” he said. “That was a point of emphasis after the second game of the year.”

The Hoppers gave Mader some runs to work with early, getting RBIs from K.J. Woods, Austen Smith and Justin Twine for a 3-0 lead after two innings. The Power closed with gap with a run off Tyler Kane and another off James Buckelew to shave the lead to one.

Luis Castillo preserved the win with a strong ninth inning. He struck out the first hitter on a 95-mph fastball, got the next to ground out, gave up a walk and then fanned the last hitter with a 79-mph slider. It was his second save of the season.

“That’s the best I’ve seen him as far as repeating his delivery,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell. “He had better body control tonight. He has three plus pitches and we want to get him some quality innings.”

The four pitchers gave up eight hits and walked six batters but pitched well with men on base, stranding 11 Power runners. None of the walks came around to score.

Left fielder Zach Sullivan made the defensive play of the night for the Hoppers, nailing a runner at home in the fourth inning with a low, one-hop throw to catcher Arturo Rodriguez.

The Hoppers got 10 hits, including three by Woods for the second straight night. He’s 9-for-15 in the four games since he came off the disabled list. He said his wrist, which he jammed sliding into a base in a game at Lakewood, now feels fine.

Two of his hits, a single and double, went to left field, a good sign for the left-handed hitter.

“I would love to get something up and in,” Woods said, “but they keep pitching me away so I’ll keep taking them to left field.”

Jose Adames will start Saturday night’s game for Greensboro.

Hoppers lose but welcome Steckenrider back

April 30, 2015

It had been a long time since Drew Steckenrider pitched in a game that counted.

In 2013 the Hoppers’ right-hander injured his elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery. He rehabbed all of 2014 and began this season on the disabled list. He was activated for Friday’s game against Hickory and made his presence felt in a contest that lasted 12 innings and was won by the Crawdads 5-3 on a two-run homer by Tripp Martin.

Steckenrider made his first appearance in nearly two years, starting the top of the sixth in relief of starter Ben Holmes and pitching into the 10th, getting two outs before being replaced by Josh Hodges. He pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings, gave up four hits, walked one and struck out four.

“He pounded the bottom of the zone with his fastball and went right after hitters,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell. He battled his butt off and it was good to see. He’s worked hard to come back. He saved our bullpen tonight.”

Steckenrider, who will pitch out of the bullpen for the time being, said he was a little nervous entering the game but settled down after a couple of pitches.

“It was exciting to pitch in something that mattered, in a real game,” he said. “It was close and I just wanted to give us a chance. It’s good to be healthy again. There’s no pain or tightness and I’m excited about the rest of the year.”

Down 3-0 early, the Hoppers came back with runs in the fourth, sixth and ninth innings to tie it. They had their best hitter, Arturo Rodriguez, at the plate with runner on first in the bottom of the 12th, but he popped out to end the game.

The Hoppers caught a bad break in the sixth after Rony Cabrera reached first on a third-strike wild pitch and K.J. Woods singled. With two outs, Brian Schales laced a drive to left-center that bounced off the warning track and over the fence for a ground rule double. Cabrera scored but, by rule, Woods could only advance to third base. Casey Soltis grounded out to end the inning.

“That killed us,” said manager Kevin Randel. “Woods was rolling and with two outs and a ball in the gap, that was an easy call to send him home and I’m sure he would have scored. But we had to bring him back to third. Those things happen.”

In the ninth, Justin Twine was called out on a close play at first base to begin the inning. Randel sprinted out of the dugout to confront base umpire Reid Joyner and was quickly ejected, bouncing his helmet off the ground for emphasis.

“That was brutal,” Randel said. “I’m not one to get thrown out, but that seemed like the appropriate time, in the ninth and our leadoff hitter should be on. I hope (Reid) didn’t take it personally.”

Soltis doubled and scored on a single by Rodrigo Vigil to tie the game.

In the 11th inning Hickory manager Corey Ragsdale was also ejected. Ragsdale first bounced his helmet — probably a little higher than Randel — and then sprinted out to protest an out call at third base by Joyner, who summarily ejected him.

The Crawdads won two of the three games in the series to improve to 15-5 overall. The Hoppers fell to 9-11 and open a four-game series with another good team, West Virginia (13-7) Friday night at NewBridge Bank Park. Michael Mader is the scheduled starter.

NOTES Hickory outfielder Luke Tendler, who played at North Carolina A&T, had a single, double and triple and scored three runs … Hoppers pitchers handled the top of the Hickory order, with the first four hitters going 2-for-23, but the five through nine hitters went 11-for-26 … Hoppers left fielder John Norwood made an outstanding catch in the fifth inning, sprinting to his right and laying out to backhand a line drive by the Crawdads’ Michael De Leon … Woods had three hits and drove in his first run of the season … Second baseman Mason Davis, who injured his right hand in Tuesday’s game, was put on the disabled list and replaced by Cabrera, activated off the Batavia roster … Reliever Jacob Smigelski was put on the Batavia roster to make room for Steckenrider.

Rodriguez has big game but Hoppers lose 7-5

April 29, 2015

Sometimes a great game by one player isn’t enough to carry a team.

That’s what happened to the Hoppers Wednesday. Arturo Rodriguez had three hits, including two homers, and drove in three runs but Hickory overcame that to post a 7-5 win over Greensboro.

It was the second of two schoolkids’ days this season, and NewBridge Bank Park was jammed with 7,792 mostly high-decibel voices. They enjoyed themselves immensely, even if it was disappointing for the Hoppers.

Rodriguez hit a sacrifice fly to center in the first inning, a solo home run to right-center in the fourth, a double in the gap to left-center in the sixth and a solo home run to left-center in the eighth. He’s now hitting .441, tops in the SAL, with three homers and 13 RBIs.

“He’s an absolute pro,” said manager Kevin Randel. “He has a great approach and never tries to do too much. Hopefully the other guys are watching him.”

Rodriguez is 23 and played three full seasons in the Mexican League before being signed by the Marlins over the winter. He has certainly mastered South Atlantic League pitching.

“He’s seeing the ball good, making adjustments and using the whole field,” said hitting coach Luis Quinones. “And he’s been doing that since Day One. The Mexican League is like Triple-A, with some good pitchers. He has more experience than the majority of our hitters.”

The Hoppers got 12 hits, with catcher Rodrigo Vigil going 3-for-4 with an RBI. The most encouraging game was probably by shortstop Justin Twine. The Marlins’ No. 2 pick last summer, Twine spent two weeks on the disabled list and carried a batting average of .065 into Tuesday’s game. Quinones said he’s “just getting his timing back.”

After a well-hit flyout to right field his first time up, Twine smoked a triple over Hickory’s center fielder his next trip and scored on a groundout by Brian Schales. He flied out his third trip, then doubled down the left field line in the ninth inning and scored on Vigil’s single.

“Just before he hit that triple, he told me ‘the hits are coming,'” Randel said.

The Hoppers’ pitching was forgettable, except for a three-inning stint by Kyle Fischer. Taking over for struggling starter Scott Squier to begin the fourth, Fischer shut down the Crawdads with three scoreless innings.

“He really picked us up and kept us in the game,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell.

The Hoppers sliced a 4-1 deficit to 4-3, but Jose Arias gave up two runs on a two-out single by Josh Morgan in the eighth and Luis Castillo surrendered another run in the ninth.

The teams close their three-game series at 7 p.m. today with Ben Holmes starting for the Hoppers.

“We’ll try to win the series and build on that,” Randel said.

NOTES: Second baseman Mason Davis missed the game after injuring his throwing hand in the ninth inning of Tuesday night’s game. He could miss another game or two … Hickory improved to 14-5, best record in the league, and starter Ariel Jurado moved to 4-0 … The Crawdads had 13 hits, four by Michael De Leon and three by Jose Cardona. Cardona and Tripp Martin hit home runs.

Defense, pitching carry Hoppers past Hickory

April 28, 2015

So far this season, there’s no place like “The Bridge.”

That would be NewBridge Bank Park, where the Hoppers beat the Hickory Crawdads 3-1 Tuesday night. The win improved their record to 6-1 at home, compared to 3-8 on the road.

“We show energy on the road,” said manager Kevin Randel, “but in a place like Delmarva, which is a graveyard and where it’s cold, if we get behind that’s it. Here, the guys think there’s always some mojo left in the tank. It’s a different feeling at home.”

The mojo that worked for the Hoppers in this game was clutch pitching, outstanding defense and just enough offense. Brian Schales had an RBI double in the third inning and Austen Smith hit his sixth homer, a two-run blast, in the sixth.

Meanwhile, starter Tyler Kolek and three relievers combined to strand 11 Crawdad runners. Hickory got 10 hits and drew two walks but its only run came on a solo homer by Travis Demeritte in the seventh inning.

Kolek picked up his second straight win. He pitched another five shutout innings, running his consecutive total to 10, but this was different than his last outing. He had only one inning when he retired the side in order and spent the rest of the time pitching out of the stretch.

But he was effective doing that, stranding two runners in the first, two more in the third, one in the fourth and two in the fifth.

“He battled with runners in scoring position several times,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell. “He just continued to make pitches and it was an outstanding effort for him. It was a tight game and he stayed on a pretty even keel.”

There were numerous excellent defensive plays by the Hoppers. One of the biggest came in the third inning after Michael De Leon singled and moved to second with one out. Demeritte singled to right field and De Leon churned around third base. But an excellent throw to home by Ismael Soto changed the mind of Hickory manager Corey Ragsdale, who held up the “Stop!” sign and had DeLeon retreat to the bag. Kolek then got a strikeout and flyout to end the inning.

Shortstop Justin Twine made back-to-back fine plays in the second, sprinting into short left field to snag a popup and uncorking a bullet throw from the hole to get the next batter. Second baseman Mason Davis made a couple of hard-charging plays and third baseman Schales handled some hard grounders.

Davis and right fielder Soto collided on a pop fly that led off the top of the ninth inning. Davis went down, injuring his throwing hand, and Randel said he could miss a game or two.

The play went for a double and reliever Josh Hodges then gave up a walk. But the tall right-hander settled down and disposed of the next three hitters to record his second save.

NOTES: Jacob Smigelski pitched a scoreless inning and Sam Alvis gave up one run in two innings … K.J. Woods came off the disabled list and had two hits, including a double, and scored a run. … Even with the loss, Hickory has a league-best 13-5 record … The game was the Hoppers’ first against someone other than Delmarva and Lakewood … Scott Squier will start Wednesday’s game, which begins at 10:45 a.m. and is the second day for schoolkids.

Hoppers score early, help Kolek earn first pro win

April 22, 2015

By the time he’s finished with his baseball career, Tyler Kolek may not recall the details of every game he wins.

But it’s likely he will always remember the first one.

It came Wednesday, in a game that began at 10:45 a.m., with the young right-hander throwing five shutout innings as the Hoppers came through with a 6-0 win over the Lakewood Blue Claws.

“You dream about playing pro baseball when you’re a little kid,” said Kolek, the second pick in last summer’s draft. “You set new goals when you become a professional. I’m excited to get this first win.”

In the Gulf Coast League last summer, Kolek pitched just 22 innings in nine games, never reaching the five innings necessary to qualify for a win. In his first two starts as a Hopper, he didn’t make it through five, either.

But with an energetic crowd of 6,992 on School Kids day in NewBridge Bank Park, Kolek turned in his longest outing as a pro. He limited Lakewood to two hits, struck out six, walked two and hit a batter. The Hoppers’ offense helped with four runs in the bottom of the first inning.

“I go after guys no matter what the score,” he said, “but it’s better if you have a couple of runs.”

Kolek had a shaky start, walking the leadoff hitter on four pitches and hitting another batter in the first inning. With Rhys Hoskins, Lakewood’s hottest hitter with three homers in two games, at the plate with one out, things might have deteriorated. But Kolek got him to hit a low fastball to third baseman Arturo Rodriguez, who began an around-the-horn double play to end the inning. That might have been the game’s biggest at-bat.

“I have confidence in my stuff,” Kolek said. “It’s mine against yours.”

Kolek stayed out of further trouble, recording a strikeout in each inning (always the second batter) and two in the fifth inning. The only question was would he exceed his pitch count before he completed the fifth.

With two outs, Grenny Cumana of Lakewood made Kolek work by fouling off several 3-and-2 pitches. But on the ninth pitch of the at-bat, Cumana grounded out to Rodriguez to end the inning.

“That was a great play by Arturo,” Kolek said. “My teammates were great about finishing off innings.”

“Outstanding,” pitching coach Jeremy Powell said of Kolek. “He was competitive and when the pressure was on, he took things to another level. That last at-bat was a long one and it was great that he won that battle. It’s nice to be a part of his first pro win.”

Powell said Kolek threw about 84 pitches, mostly keeping his fastball down and improving his curve as the game went along. Relievers Sam Alvis, James Buckelew and Colby Suggs finished off the shutout.

Mason Davis got the offense to a fast start with a leadoff homer, his first of the year. The big blow came later in the inning when Rony Cabrera doubled down the left-field line with the bases loaded for three RBIs. Aaron Blanton and Austen Smith later added solo homers.

“I told the guys that in an early game like this, it’s which team wants it more,” said manager Kevin Randel. “The team that doesn’t complain about the 10:45 starting time and gets an early lead usually wins.”

Kolek has a few days to savor this — “until my next start.”

If the rotation holds, that will be back at home on April 28 against Hickory.

NOTES: Rodriguez had two hits to boost his average to .415 … In his first action at third base, Rodriguez handled six chances without a flaw … Randel said third base is probably the most natural position for Rodriguez, who has caught and played first … Smith’s homer was his fifth and Blanton’s was his second … Cabrera had three hits to raise his average to .400. He was brought in to fill the roster spot when shortstop Justin Twine went on the DL and Randel said “he has shown he belongs here.” … Twine (hamstring) and K.J. Woods (wrist) are both expected to return around the end of the month … Felix Castillo got his first start at catcher and threw out a potential base-stealer … The Hoppers, now 7-6, completed their first homestand 5-1. They head back to Delmarva for four games, have a day off and return home April 28 … In the absurdity of the SAL schedule, the Hoppers will have played Delmarva 11 times in their first 17 games, with the other six coming against Lakewood.

Lakewood snaps Hoppers streak at 5

April 21, 2015

Streaks are made to be stopped and that’s what happened to the Hoppers Tuesday at NewBridge Bank Park.

Lakewood hit four solo home runs, two by Rhys Hoskins, and added four other runs to post an 8-5 win, snapping Greensboro’s five-game winning streak.

Three of the homers came off starter Jose Adames and another off reliever Jose Arias.

“The pitchers were falling behind,” said manager Kevin Randel. “If you don’t get strike one, you’re in trouble no matter what level you’re playing at.”

The Hoppers might have survived the homers but the other runs were costly. One scored on a double steal of second base and home, another came in on a hit batter by Kyle Fischer with the bases loaded and still another on a passed ball by catcher Rodrigo Vigil.

What disappointed Randel was the pitchers’ inability to shut down the BlueClaws after the Hoppers scored. After Greensboro scored a run in bottom of the third, Lakewood answered in the top of the fourth. The Hoppers scored four times in the fifth inning to gain a 5-4 lead but the BlueClaws tied it in the top of the sixth.

Even when Lakewood took the lead and extended it to 8-5, the Hoppers still gave themselves a chance to win, putting two runners on base with two outs in the ninth. The BlueClaws elected not to take a chance with Arturo Rodriguez, who had already clubbed a three-run homer, and walked him on four pitches to load the bases.

Austen Smith, who leads the club with four homers, came up and quickly fell behind 0-and-2 to reliever Matt Hockenberry. Smith worked the count to 3-and-2 but then swung and missed to end the game.

“We had a shot at the end,” Randel said. “I felt like we had it, I really did. At 3-and-2 I knew he would get a fastball and he just tried to do a little too much with it.”

The Hoppers wrap up the Lakewood series with a 10:45 a.m. game Wednesday, the first of School Kids days. Tyler Kolek will start for Greensboro.

“We’ll see who wants to play,” Randel said of the early start.

NOTES: Vigil had two doubles and a single for the Hoppers and scored twice … Rony Cabrera added an RBI double … Rodriguez hit his first homer of the season. He played two full seasons in the Mexican League, hitting 15 home runs with 71 RBIs with Tijuana last year … Hoskins went 4-for-4 with two homers, three runs and two RBIs for Lakewood … Derek Campbell went 3-for-4 with another homer.

Mader finds groove as Hoppers win 5th straight

April 20, 2015

The Michael Mader that the Hoppers have been expecting showed up in the second inning Monday night.

The left-hander had been battered in his first two starts, both on the road, lasting only 4 1/3 innings and giving up eight hits, eight walks and 12 runs. And it looked like a “here we go again” when he gave up three runs to Lakewood in the first inning.

But that was it. Mader found his groove and combined with reliever Luis Castillo to shut out the BlueClaws over the last eight innings. The Hoppers offense clicked and they went on to an 8-3 win, their fourth in a row at NewBridge Bank Park and fifth straight overall as they lifted their record to 6-5.

Home runs by Austen Smith and Rony Cabrera led the 13-hit attack. Smith drilled his fourth homer of the season to begin the second inning and Cabrera hit his first, a two-run shot, later in the second. The Hoppers scored four runs and took the lead for good.

“We’re getting better at-bats, quality at-bats, and stringing them together,” said manager Kevin Randel. “Early in the season when guys are scuffling and they see those (low) batting averages flashed on the video board, they listen better.”

Cabrera added a third RBI and scored twice. Brian Schales and Zach Sullivan each tripled and scored twice and Mason Davis added two hits and two RBIs.

But the story of the night was Mader. After another rough start, he found himself in a jam in the second inning. An error, a single and a wild pitch put Lakewood runners on second and third with one out. He might have cracked there, but instead he struck out Malquin Canelo and got Jiandido Tromp to ground out to strand the runners.

“I just made sure to take my time, take some deep breaths and make quality pitches,” Mader said.

He was locked in after that, retiring the last 10 hitters he faced, finishing with five strikeouts and no walks.

“He pitched ahead in the count and got better as he went,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell. “He did a 180 after the first inning. I think the second inning helped him get over the hump and the four-spot we put up helped, too.

“He’s been a performer his whole life. He took his lumps early, which will make him better. He’s been working hard on the side between starts.”

Mader said he had been rushing his delivery and pitching inconsistently from the stretch and that’s what he worked on in the side sessions. He knew he was better than he had shown to begin the season.

“I’ve never had two starts like that in my life,” he said, “so I had to find out how to deal with some adversity.”

He was supported with text messages and phone calls from people in his home town of Marianna, FL, a small town near Tallahassee. He heard from members of his family, close friends and his coach at Chipola Junior College, telling him in various forms that slumps happen in baseball and he would come out of it.

“I have some goals for this season,” he said. “One is to work on my strikeouts-to-walks ratio. It’s not where I want it but it got better tonight because I didn’t have any walks. I also want to learn to get the ball down, which you have to do in this park, and I did that better tonight.”

Castillo took over to start the seventh and retired the first three hitters he faced. He went on to earn a three-inning save, giving up one hit with two strikeouts and no walks.

“His fastball was firm and hard,” Powell said. “Their team got flat and we took advantage of that.”

NOTES: Mader became the first Hoppers starter to post a win this season … Five Hoppers hitters had two hits each … John Norwood was the only batter who didn’t get a hit but he drew three walks … Schales and Sullivan each tripled and scored in the fifth inning … Lakewood manager Shawn Williams was ejected while arguing a call at home plate in the bottom of the fifth … Jose Adames will start Tuesday’s game against the BlueClaws.

Smith homers, Hodges closes and Hoppers win

April 18, 2015

While Austen Smith looks to establish himself, Josh Hodges seeks to reinvent himself.

Both played prominent parts for the Hoppers in their 3-2 win over the Delmarva Shorebirds at NewBridge Bank Park Friday night.

Smith, drafted in the 33rd round last summer, drilled a two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth inning to give Greensboro a one-run lead. Then Hodges, who pitched here in 2012 as a starter, slammed the door to earn the save in the top of the ninth.

It was the Hoppers’ third straight win at home after a slow start on the road.

“What are we, 5-5?” manager Kevin Randel asked rhetorically. “That’s a long way from where we were.”

In the bottom of the eighth, with the Hoppers down 2-1, Arturo Rodriguez led off with a single. Smith worked the count from Shorebirds reliever Derrick Bleeker to 3-and-2, then belted his third homer of the year, a shot to right center field.

“I had faced him in Delmarva and I knew the fastball was his best pitch,” Smith said. “On 2-and-2 he tried to get me to chase a changeup but I laid off. I had a good feeling he would come back with a fastball and I got a piece of it and it went out. This is a small park and I thought I hit it well enough.”

Smith was drafted in a low round out of high school in 2010 but decided on college instead and played four years at Alabama. He watched the draft go by round after round last summer without seeing his name.

“After the 30th and 31st rounds, I joked with my brother that it looked like I would have to get a real job,” he said. “But the Marlins finally took me and I’m grateful for the opportunity. I’m 23 years old, so there’s not much room for error. I need to show what I can do right away.”

Randel said Smith “can hit a fastball a long way. He can turn himself into a prospect.”

Hodges was drafted in the seventh round out of high school in 2009 and was brought along slowly by the Marlins. By the time he reached Greensboro three years ago, he was an established starter and had a solid year, going 8-10 with a 3.65 ERA.

But after an OK season in Jupiter in 2013, things went bad with the Hammerheads in 2014. He was 0-6 with a 7.34 ERA.

“I couldn’t tell you what the problem was,” Hodges said. “I just never settled down and I turned into a liability every fifth day.”

Management suggested he try the bullpen, so he was sent to short-season Batavia, which at first he took as a negative. But he felt differently after talking with pitching coach Brendan Sagara.

“He helped me see that I could make a new name for myself,” Hodges said.

He was used in the back end of the bullpen and worked himself into the role of the closer. In 22 games, he had a 3-5 record with a 2.63 ERA and seven saves.

“I love it now,” he said. “I was used to a routine of every five days and now I have to be ready at a moment’s notice. They told us here that we would put ourselves into various roles. I knew that Colby Suggs (who saved Friday’s win) would be down and I might get a chance. I put my foot in the door.”

Hodges made quick work of the Shorebirds, striking out the first two batters and getting the third on a fly ball to center field.

“He was outstanding,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell. “He was aggressive, got ahead in the count with his fastball and really got after it.”

Powell also liked the gritty effort of starter Ben Holmes, who pitched five scoreless innings to start the game before being charged with two runs in the sixth and being lifted with two outs.

“He was behind in the count a lot but he battled, made good pitches when he needed to and never wavered,” Powell said.

The Hoppers’ first run of the game was manufactured by Zach Sullivan. He led off the third inning with a bunt single, stole second base, went to third on a flyout to right field and scored when a pitch went off the catcher’s glove and Sullivan beat the throw to the pitcher covering home.

“That was actually a pickoff play,” Randel said. “I saw the third baseman moving to the bag and I was yelling ‘back, back’ but the ball squirted off the catcher’s glove and (Sullivan) took off. He can fly.”

NOTES: James Buckelew picked up the win in relief, his second of the season … Rodriguez, Sullivan and Isael Soto each had two hits for the Hoppers … John Norwood made two sparkling defensive plays in the fourth inning. The left fielder ran down a slicing fly ball with a leaping catch and later threw out a runner at home plate … The Hoppers go for the sweep today with Michael Mader the starting pitcher in the 4 p.m. game.

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