Naylor’s early lightning bolt propels Hoppers

June 24, 2016

Jagged lightning danced in the dark sky behind the outfield fences starting about midway through Friday night’s game at NewBridge Bank Park.

But the biggest bolt of the night came off the bat of Josh Naylor in the bottom of the first inning.

After Anfernee Seymour drew a walk and Justin Twine singled against Hickory left-hander Wes Benjamin, Naylor drove a pitch far over the right-field netting for a three-run homer. Several observers said they believed it carried across Eugene Street.

“He got into that one,” said manager Kevin Randel.

The homer changed the nature of the game. The Crawdads had scored twice in the top of the first, but one swing put the Hoppers on top 3-2. Oddly, that’s where the score stayed the rest of the way as the Hoppers moved to 2-0 in the South Atlantic League’s second half and 40-32 overall.

“That inning was a big answer for us,” Randel said. “Early in the year we weren’t doing that. Now, when the other team scores, we come back and put some crooked numbers on the board.”

Naylor, a left-handed hitter, went into the game with an average of .145 against lefties.

“I’ve been getting away from my swing against left-handers, committing too early,” Naylor said. “It helped that I pretty much knew what was coming. It was a slider that hung a lot and I stayed back on it.”

It was Naylor’s eighth homer of the year and increased his RBI total to 43.

From there, pitching took over as Benjamin settled down and allowed no more runs through five innings, striking out eight. Chuck Weaver of the Hoppers, a little rusty from a six-day layoff, wasn’t sharp early and went to a lot of three-ball counts. Then he improved his efficiency and completed six innings.

“Starters have to keep themselves in the game and he did,” said pitching coach Brendan Sagara. “He found a way to stick around and give us the six innings we needed.”

The third inning was the key for Weaver. Dylan Moore led off with a triple and wound up being stranded. Weaver got one out with a fly ball to center that Zach Sullivan pulled in and, with momentum carrying him forward, uncorked a good throw to home plate. Moore went well down the line, then retreated to the base.

Aaron Blanton then stabbed a hard grounder at third base. He could have taken an easy out at home plate but decided to try for two. He pegged a good throw to Justin Twine at second base for one out and Twine made a nice pivot and threw to first to complete the “around-the-horn” double play and end the inning. Blanton’s play atoned for his error that led to an unearned run in the first inning.

Weaver threw three more innings without incident and picked up the win to move his record to 7-4.

Andy Beltre followed and was also rusty, issuing walks in the seventh and eighth innings. Randel decided to go with closer C.J. Robinson with two outs and a runner on base in the eighth.

“You won’t see that in the major leagues,” Sagara said, “but in Class A ball We need to do that now and then for his development.”

Robinson is used to getting multiple outs because he’s been a middle-innings reliever most of his career. He got the final out of the eighth on a ground ball and struck out the first batter in the ninth. For the second out, Seymour made a good stop in the hole at shortstop and a strong throw that Naylor stretched and snagged at first base.

After giving up a single and then throwing two balls to the next hitter, Robinson gathered himself and finished the game with a strikeout.

“I was nibbling too much, trying to be too cute instead of trusting my fastball and getting them to swing,” Robinson said. “So I stepped off the mound, took a deep breath and focused on the next pitch.”

Robinson got the save in the SAL All-Star game on Tuesday. Friday’s save was his 12th in 12 opportunities this season. He said he tries to keep things simple and not over-think on the mound.

“I really like it,” he said about closing. “It allows me to stay in a routine. Before, I could go into a game anywhere from the fifth to the eighth inning. Now it’s usually in the ninth, when my team has the lead. I don’t have to rush to get ready and that gives me time to clear my mind.”

The teams play the third game of the series Saturday at 7 p.m. The Hoppers’ starter will be Chris Paddack, who has not allowed a hit over 10 innings in his last two starts.

NOTES: Former Hopper K.J. Woods, who hit 18 homers and drove in 58 runs here last year, is now with the Kannapolis Intimidators … Woods started this season in Jupiter but hit only .155 in 24 games with two homers and seven RBIs … The Marlins put him on the Batavia roster, then released him because, as one source told me, they were tired of dealing with his “personal issues” … Woods, a fourth-round draft pick in 2013, won’t turn 21 until July 9, so the Chicago White Sox felt there was time for him to salvage his career … Kannapolis will play the Hoppers July 7-10 in NewBridge.

Rodriguez leaves Hoppers with a big bang

June 23, 2016

Some people know how to make an entrance but Arturo Rodriguez knows how to make an exit.

Rodriguez belted a three-run, walk-off homer in the bottom of the 11th inning Thursday night to give the Hoppers an 8-5 victory over Hickory in the first game of the season’s second half. As he rounded third base and headed to home plate, he threw his batting helmet high in the air before being engulfed by his teammates.

After the game, Rodriguez was told he was being promoted to high A Jupiter in the Florida State League. In the locker room, teammates came up to give him a hug and wish him well.

“I just now found out,” he said, with teammate Roy Morales translating. “I feel so happy that I could help this team win.”

Rodriguez, who was the Hoppers’ No. 1 catcher last year, began this season in Jupiter but struggled in a backup role. When Greensboro suffered a slew of injuries at catcher, he was sent here to help out.

And the Hoppers plugged him in right away. After one game at first base, Rodriguez caught eight straight games. He didn’t start Thursday’s game, but entered after Morales was lifted for a pinch-runner after doubling to lead off the bottom of the 10th inning.

“I don’t like to pinch-run for catchers,” said manager Kevin Randel, “but that was the winning run at second base with no outs.”

The Hoppers couldn’t punch a run across, however, and Rodriguez took over the catching in the top of the 11th inning. His spot in the batting order came up after Justin Twine singled, Josh Naylor sacrificed him to second and Angel Reyes was given an intentional walk.

Against soft-throwing right-hander Omarlin Lopez, Rodriguez got around on a slider and smashed a long home run to left field.

“I knew it was gone,” he said.

So Rodriguez’s stint here ends after 10 games and now he heads back to the level he needs to be at age 24.

“He was a nice rental while we had him,” Randel said. “We knew he would give us a good at-bat (in the 11th), and he did.”

Morales will take over as the top catcher. He had three hits, including two doubles, and drove in three runs against the Crawdads. For him, starting the second half with a win — the club’s 27th in its last 35 games — was important.

“We keep that momentum going to start the second half,” he said. “We want to make the playoffs and win the championship.”

Naylor also had three hits, with two doubles and two RBIS. Randel said he’s swinging at too many pitches outside the strike zone, but the three hits should help his confidence.

Naylor is still shaking off the rust after serving his suspension at the Marlins’ minor-league complex in Jupiter. He took some batting practice but didn’t face any live pitching.

“I took some extra hitting today,” he said. “Timing is the main thing. It’s coming around a little bit but it’s not where it needs to be.”

Starter Cody Poteet didn’t make it out of the fifth inning but the bullpen was excellent, allowing no runs in 6 2/3 innings. L.J. Brewster allowed an inherited runner to score but that was it. Kyle Keller threw two shutout innings, as did Jose Quijada, who got the win.

“The bullpen carried over from the first half,” said pitching coach Brendan Sagara. “They didn’t have that many easy innings but they left a lot of runners stranded.”

The Hoppers could have won the game on several occasions but left 11 runners on base and were just 5-for-23 with runners in scoring position. Still, they found a way to pull it out.

“The mojo is working for us,” Randel said, “and it’s something special.”

NOTES: The temperature dropped from 85 degrees when the game started to 69 when it ended, minutes before a torrential downpour … Chuck Weaver will start the second game of the series Thursday night at 7 o’clock in NewBridge Bank Park … The Hoppers will add a catcher to their roster and also another pitcher for the bullpen.

Hpppers face intriguing second half

June 22, 2016

Back to 0-0.

That’s how the Hoppers will begin the second half of the South Atlantic League season Thursday night when they begin a four-game series with Hickory at NewBridge Bank Park.

Some people think of the second half as a clean slate, but it’s really not. Only the team’s record is affected. Individual statistics will continue to accumulate and players now have half a season under their belts.

The split season gives teams who didn’t win the first half a chance to qualify for the playoffs by winning the second half. Because rosters can turn over significantly, it’s possible for teams that were below .500 in the first half to improve their talent and win the second half.

Still, some managers don’t care for the split season format. Former Hoppers skipper Andy Haines believed that everyone should play 140 games and see who’s the best over the long haul. Current manager Kevin Randel, who was Haines’ hitting coach, would prefer that, too.

“You don’t hit the reset button,” Randel said after the Hoppers recently wrapped up their last home stand. “Right now we’re playing good ball and I think that’s exactly how we’ll play the rest of the way. I’m looking for us to play competitive baseball and keep games close so you always have a chance.”

Momentum is a fickle thing in baseball, so there’s the question of how much the Hoppers’ good finish to the first half will help them.

“Our goal is to keep playing strong and have it carry over for the second half,” said outfielder Zach Sullivan, and that was typical of most players.

Hagerstown won the North and Charleston took the South to earn playoff berths. But as the first half ended, the Hoppers were the hottest team in the league.

After a miserable 12-24 start, the Hoppers dramatically turned things around to finish 38-32. In the final 34 games of the half, they went 26-8. Delmarva had the next best record in that stretch at 22-12. Hagerstown, Charleston and Augusta each won 20 games.

The biggest improvement has been their hitting. The Hoppers are averaging .242 as a team, tied for 11th among 14 team, and their 30 homers rank last. But it took them several games to climb over .100 and then .200 in team batting average and more than two weeks to hit their first home run. Since that start, their numbers are pretty good.

Shortstop Anfernee Seymour is one example. After struggling early, his current seven-game hitting streak has helped pull his average to .283. He’s hitting .358 in his last 30 games and .397 in June as he learns to use his speed on bunts and to slap hits through holes in the infield.

Second baseman Justin Twine, who didn’t join the team until May, also has a seven-game streak He’s up to .261 and is hitting .304 in June. Twine has made a good transition from short to second and is showing more a bit more discipline at the plate. He’s drawn 10 walks in 37 games after walking just six times in more than 100 games last season.

Sullivan, also repeating this level, looks like a different player. After hitting below .200 with only 10 extra-base hits and 21 RBIs in 2015, he’s up to .257 with 20 extra-base hits and 26 RBIs in the first half.

The club’s hottest hitter has been Angel Reyes, now up to .306 with two homers and 29 RBIs. Reyes is hitting .393 in the last 30 games and a robust .423 so far in June.

Outfielder Kyle Barrett, who filled in nicely when Isael Soto was on the DL, is hitting .333 in June and in his last 30 games.

Those players need to keep that up, which won’t be easy when the dog days of mid-July and August hit. That’s when the heat and humidity, plus the cumulative effects of a long season, can affect anyone.

First baseman Josh Naylor, last year’s No.1 draft pick by the Marlins, had an OK first half, hitting .256 with seven homers and 38 RBIs. Naylor, who turned 19 today, was just 2-for-19 when he came off a suspension, but he went 4-for-9 in the Hoppers’ last two games of the half. His power would be a big asset in the second half.

The pitching carried the club in the first half, particularly yeoman’s work by the bullpen with most starters pitching limited innings. Ben Holmes and Scott Squier were stellar before they earned promotions to Jupiter. C.J. Robinson stepped into the closer’s role and recorded 11 saves in 11 opportunities. Jeff Kinley won five games in relief after joining the club.

The starting rotation has been in flux with injuries and pitch counts. Cody Poteet hasn’t missed a start and, although he’s won just three games, has posted a 2.48 ERA. Chuck Weaver, the 25-year-old from independent ball, has been an anchor with a 6-4 record and 2.63 ERA.

Then there’s Chris Paddack, the 20-year-old right-hander drafted out of high school last year. He was supposed to break camp with the Hoppers but was held back with some soreness and didn’t join the team until May. He has been spectacular in the five games he’s started, winning twice with a 1.16 ERA. In his last two starts, covering 10 innings (it’s likely he’ll be limited to five innings per start), Paddack has not allowed a hit.

Everyone in the lineup made important contributions to the Hoppers’ strong first-half finish. How many other teams had two position players record pitching wins? Aaron Blanton and Giovanny Alfonzo did that when pressed into service in extra-inning games, and Alfonzo added a save.

Randel hopes he doesn’t get into a situation like that again. Regardless, there are intriguing ingredients on hand for the next 70 games.

ALL-STAR GAME: The North took a 2-1 win from the South Tuesday in Lexington, Ky. Hagerstown’s Max Schrock went 2-for-3 and drove in both of the North’s runs to earn the MVP Award. The Hoppers had two participants — Isael Soto went 1-for-2 and C.J. Robinson earned the save by retiring the South in order in the bottom of the 9th inning. Greensboro native Josh Tobias of Lakewood went 1-for-2.

Asheville jumps on Hoppers early for 5-2 win

June 15, 2016

When two weary teams meet, the one that strikes first has a big advantage.

At least, that’s what happened Wednesday at NewBridge Bank Park. With Asheville and Greensboro playing 13 hours after a 14-inning game the night before, the Tourists scored three times in the first inning and went on to beat the Hoppers 5-2.

“Those were two tired clubs out there,” said Hoppers manager Kevin Randel. “They had enough energy in the first inning and we sort of flatlined from there.”

The Hoppers had won the first two meetings before Asheville took the getaway game. The result still meant the Hoppers won the series, giving them nine straight series without losing one. They won eight and split the other.

The Tourists left the field with faces showing disbelief Tuesday night after the Hoppers rallied in the 14th to win 6-5. They were the aggressors right away against Greensboro right-hander Jordan Holloway.

Carlos Herrera got it started with a leadoff double and Brendan Rodgers followed with a hard-hit single off the glove of third baseman Aaron Blanton. Brian Mundell then ripped a three-run homer, giving the Tourists a lead they never relinquished.

Asheville tacked on two more runs in the fourth inning, both scoring on Herrera’s single, for a 5-0 lead. On a hot, humid day, that Randel called “a sticky mess,” hole proved too deep for the Hoppers.

The Tourists’ Peter Lambert, a 19-year-old right-hander, kept the Hoppers at bay through five innings. He walked one and hit a batter, but only Anfernee Seymour touched him for a hit, a single in the third inning.

“He was living off the edges (of the plate),” Randel said, “and we were swinging at his pitches. Our at-bats weren’t very good.”

Holloway lasted four innings. Justin Jacome and Kyle Keller combined for the final five and didn’t allow any runs. Meanwhile, the Hoppers couldn’t reach Asheville reliever Drasen Johnson, who pitched three scoreless innings.

Finally, in the top of the ninth against Kelvin Franco, the Hoppers showed some offensive life Angel Reyes tripled and Justin Twine doubled him in. Twine scored when Franco uncorked two of the wildest pitches ever seen, both at least two feet over the catcher’s head.

The one good thing Franco did was retire Arturo Rodriguez on a fly ball. Asheville turned to Salvador Justo, who entered with no one on base and one out, and he disposed of Kyle Barrett and Blanton to end the game.

Josh Naylor, in the second game back from his suspension, went 0-for-4 but hit two long flies his last two times at bat.

“He stayed on the ball longer on those two,” Randel said. “Yesterday he was pulling off everything. All he did in Jupiter was work out and take batting practice. He didn’t play in any live games. It’s going to take some time to get his timing back.”

The Hoppers have been short-handed at catcher for several days. Korey Dunbar went on the DL leaving Rodriguez as the only healthy body. Catching his fifth straight game, Rodriguez threw out two runners trying to steal.

“He caught 14 innings Tuesday and nine innings today,” said pitching coach Brendan Sagara. “That’s 23 innings in 12 hours, and I don’t know many catchers in (Class) A ball who could have done that. That shows how tough he is. Arturo is a real pro.”

Rodriguez battled his way through the game, despite having a sore foot that was hit by a foul ball Tuesday, and having an infection in his leg drained after Tuesday’s game. He should get a break in Rome when the Hoppers activate Roy Morales, who has been out with a concussion.

The game was the final one in the first half for the Hoppers, now 35-31. They wrap up the first half with four games at Rome, followed by a three-day break for the South Atlantic League All-Star game. The second half begins at home on June 23, when Hickory opens a four-game series.

NOTESK: Reyes and Twine had two hits each while the rest of the lineup managed just one … Asheville’s Mundell has 34 doubles through 66 games and, if he isn’t promoted, could threaten the SAL record … That’s held by one of my all-time favorite Greensboro players, Scott Seabol, who had 55 doubles in 1999 with the Bats.

Hoppers rally in 14th, get a win for Alfonzo

June 14, 2016

Giovanny Alfonzo keeps racking up the pitching statistics.

He entered Monday’s game in the top of the 14th inning and gave up a run, but the Hoppers rallied in the bottom of the inning. Aaron Blanton homered to tie the game against Asheville and Anfernee Seymour drove in Casey Soltis with a double moments later to give the Hoppers an improbable 6-5 win.

Alfonzo earned the victory to go with the save he recorded last week against Hickory. Not a bad pitching resume for a utility infielder.

It was the second 14-inning win for the Hoppers in six days. In the game against Hickory, Blanton got the win and Alfonzo saved the game.

“It’s been a crazy year for me,” Alfonzo said.

Manager Kevin Randel doesn’t know if he can take many more games like those two.

“They’re taking years off my life,” he laughed. “These kids are showing a lot of fight and it’s fun to watch.”

The Hoppers looked like they were done when Asheville nicked Alfonzo for a run in the top of the 14th on a double, a sacrifice and an RBI single. In the bottom of the inning, Tourist reliever Devin Burke quickly disposed of the first two hitters. Then Blanton, hitless in his first five trips, lined a ball over the fence in left field to tie the game.

“I thought (Burke) was going to throw another fastball,” Blanton said, “so I sat on it and hit it hard. I didn’t want to be the one to end the game. I didn’t even know it was a homer at first.”

Soltis then coaxed a walk to keep things going and bring up Seymour, who hooked a double into the left field corner. Solis was waved around third base by coach Jose Ceballos and scored standing up.

“I went up there with the idea of looking for something elevated that I could drive into a gap,” Seymour said. “I knew Casey was fast and could score. (Burke) gave me something away and I got around on it. That’s the first time I’ve ever done something like that in my life. I can’t describe how it feels.”

The reason Alfonzo was pressed into service again was because the scheduled starter, Gabriel Castellanos, was just put on the DL. So the Hoppers patched together a group of four relief pitchers to fill the gap.

L.J. Brewster started and made it through four innings, giving up three runs, one of them unearned. Jeff Kinley was next up and threw three shutout innings, allowing one hit. Ben Meyer threw three more, giving up a home run in the ninth that stretched Asheville’s lead to 4-2.

But the Hoppers countered with two runs to tie it. Angel Reyes singled and scored on a double by Arturo Rodriguez, who moved to third on a throwing error. Justin Twine punched a single through a drawn-in Asheville infield to score Rodriguez and tie the game.

After Meyer pitched a scoreless 10th, Andy Beltre came on to blank the Tourists on one hit for the next three innings.

The first four pitchers combined for 18 strikeouts — four by Brewster, five by Kinley, six by Meyer and three by Beltre.

With the Hoppers completely out of available pitchers, Randel called on Alfonzo.

“I was joking with some guys in the dugout about when I should start getting loose,” said Alfonzo. “In the 10th inning, Smoke (Randel’s nickname) nodded at me and told me to get loose. So I grabbed my glove, went to the bullpen and tried to get into a pitcher’s mode — which I don’t even have.”

Alfonzo said that, before he pitched against Hickory, his only experience on the mound was for his high school JV team at the end of a season. He never pitched in two years at Florida State and two more at Tampa. So what was in his arsenal?

“A two-seam fastball, a four-seam fastball, a changeup and a knuckle curve,” he said with a straight face. “I don’t really work on them, but I know how to hold them. When position players play catch we mess around and pretend we’re pitchers. I just tried to hit my spots and change speeds as much as I could.”

A right-hander, he threw from a three-quarter arm slot at speeds that ranged from a high of 77 mph down to 58. After Beltre had pounded the Tourists with fastballs at 92, the ball must have looked like it was taking forever to reach the plate. Asheville did reach him for a double and a bloop single, neither hard hit, to score its run.

“I felt bad for my team,” he said, “because they had played their butts off for 13 innings.”

Turns out, they were just setting things up for his victory.

The Hoppers knocked out 17 hits — four each by Seymour, Twine and Reyes. Seymour had a pair of doubles and two bunt singles. Twine had a pair of RBIs, including a solo homer, his first of the year.

Josh Naylor returned from his suspension and was the Hoppers’ DH but didn’t factor into any of the scoring, going 1-for-6.

The Hoppers won their fourth straight game and improved to 35-30, clinching at least a .500 record for the first half. They have five games remaining.

There’s little rest for the weary. The teams get right back at it with a 12:30 game at NewBridge Bank Park Wednesday, the final game of the series and the final home game of the first half for the Hoppers. Jordan Holloway will start for Greensboro.

Sullivan’s defense, bat spark Hoppers

June 13, 2016

It’s not often that a game-saving defensive play happens in the first inning, but that was the case for the Hoppers Monday night.

Center fielder Zach Sullivan threw out a runner at the plate for the third out in the top of the first inning. The run that was saved proved to be the difference, as the Hoppers held on to beat Asheville 4-3 at NewBridge Bank Park. It was their 22nd win in the last 28 games.

Sullivan also provided a key role on offense, drilling a two-run homer to break a 1-1 tie in the sixth inning. Angel Reyes added a solo homer later in the inning to provide a 4-1 lead. The Tourists made it interesting in the ninth, scoring twice, but closer C.J. Robinson slipped a called third strike past the last hitter to end the game.

Back to the first inning. After Asheville’s Brian Mundell doubled (his 33rd of the season) with two outs, Yonathan Daza singled to center. Sullivan charged the ball and fired it home, but it was high and wide. Not only did Mundell score, but Daza went to second base.

“It was off-line and (because it missed the cutoff man) the runner went to second,” Sullivan said. “You can’t let that happen.”

Sam Hilliard then singled to center and Daza was waved home. This time, Sullivan fired a strike to home plate — one that could have been cut off, if necessary, by first baseman Reyes. Catcher Arturo Rodriguez took the throw and tagged out the sliding Daza.

If Daza scores, the game is 2-0 and the Tourists likely have another runner in scoring position, a potential big inning brewing.

“The first throw took off on me, so I stayed on top of the ball on the second one,” Sullivan said. “I wanted to make sure I threw it through Reyes so he could cut it off.”

“It was a great throw and a great catch and tag by Rodriguez,” said manager Kevin Randel.

The Hoppers answered with a run in the bottom of the first when Reyes doubled in Kyle Barrett. For the next four innings, the game settled into a pitchers’ duel between Steven Farnworth of the Hoppers and David Hill of Asheville, each holding the other team scoreless.

“Farnworth knows how to pitch,” said pitching coach Brendan Sagara. “He’s tough when he gets his sinker in the zone. He found a good place with his pitches and stayed there.”

Going into the bottom of the sixth, the game remained tied. But the Hoppers were in their third time through the order facing Hill. Anfernee Seymour opened with a perfect bunt that rolled to a stop about halfway down the third-base line.

He stole second and Sullivan came up with the idea of moving him over to third base. Instead, he put a slight uppercut swing on a fastball and drove it over the left field fence for a 3-1 lead.

“The count was 3-and-0 and I took that pitch,” he said. “On 3-and-1, he threw pretty much the same pitch, a fastball a little low but down the middle. I definitely knew it was gone off the bat.”

Two batters later, Reyes ripped another homer to make it a three-run lead.

“Sullivan’s was a good bolt and sounded good off the bat,” Randel said. “Reyes had another good bolt. He’s red-hot.”

Reyes is 6-for-12 in his last three games and 18-for-40 in his last 10 games. He has RBIs in six straight games.

Farnworth’s night was over after five innings and stocky left-hander Jose Quijada took over. After giving up a single to the first hitter, he retired the next eight hitters (one on a double play) and struck out the last five hitters he faced.

“He’s tough when he’s in rhythm,” Sagara said. “He’s got a sneaky fastball, a slider and changeup. His delivery is herky-jerky and unconventional and it can be tough for hitters to see the ball.”

Robinson, who had been on the DL and hadn’t pitched since May 26, entered in the top of the ninth. He hit a batter and gave up an RBI single and an RBI double to shave the lead to one run with two outs. But he caught Chris Rabago looking at a third strike to end the game, earning his 10th save.

“We’re not worried about C.J.,” Sagara said. “I felt like he got back to his A game on that last batter.”

Randel said first baseman Josh Naylor will be activated from the suspended list and will play in Tuesday night’s game. Naylor has been in the Marlins’ Jupiter complex since he was suspended for a “prank” in which outfielder Stone Garrett suffered a thumb laceration that will sideline him for 8-10 weeks.

NOTES: With scheduled starter Gabriel Castellanos on the disabled list, the Hoppers will patch together a group of relievers for Tuesday’s game … L.J. Brewster will start and, depending on how many innings he throws, the Hoppers will adjust from there … Andy Beltre and Jeff Kinley are possibilities to follow Brewster … The home runs were the second of the season for both Sullivan and Reyes … Sullivan now has 24 RBIs, four more than he had all of last season … Asheville’s Mundell, the league’s leading hitter, was held to 1-for-4 and is now at .349.

Paddack leads way in one-hit shutout for Hoppers

June 12, 2016

Pitching in daylight doesn’t bother Chris Paddack and pitching in heat and humidity doesn’t bother him, either.

And Sunday afternoon, the Rome Braves didn’t bother him a bit.

Paddack dominated the Braves in his five-inning stint, and two relievers followed up to complete a one-hit shutout as the Hoppers cruised to a 7-0 win in NewBridge Bank Park.

The 20-year-old right-hander, in just his fourth start of the season, allowed only one baserunner — that came on a walk in the second inning — and struck out 11. He retired 15 of the 16 hitters he faced and only four batters put the ball in play. He registered at least two strikeouts in every inning in a dominant effort.

“I felt great today,” Paddack said. “I feel I have an advantage in day games because that’s all you pitch in the Gulf Coast League and in extended spring training. And I’m used to the heat and humidity. I pitched in it in Texas all the time (in high school). I like it because it keeps my arm warm.”

The Braves must have thought his arm was a volcano. He had excellent command of his fastball, moving it in and out, and tossed in his changeup and an occasional curve to keep the hitters off balance. Rome’s baatters never figured out what was coming, and five of them took called third strikes.

“I pounded the (strike) zone with the fastball,” Paddack said, “and mixed in the change and the curve to show I could throw them for strikes. If something’s working, then I won’t change it.”

Paddack is on a five-inning limit, so Justin Jacome followed and pitched two perfect innings, striking out three to run the total to 14 whiffs and keeping the no-hitter alive. The left-hander, who was the Hoppers’ opening day starter, was making his second appearance out of the bullpen since coming off a month-long stint on the DL with biceps tendinitis.

“I haven’t pitched in relief since high school,” Jacome said, “but I’ll do my part. When I came in I really wasn’t thinking about the no-hitter. I wanted to get as many outs as I could as quickly as I could. Pitching in relief, you can’t be laid back when you come in.”

Right-hander Kyle Keller entered in the top of the eighth. The suspense was building, but it ended quickly when Rome’s Lucas Herbert hit Keller’s first pitch for a single to left field. It wasn’t a line drive, but Herbert got enough of an inside fastball to lift a soft fly that fell well in front of Kris Goodman.

“I wish I had that pitch back,” Keller said. “That’s how it goes in baseball. Sometimes the bloops fall in and the line drives are caught.”

Keller came right back to get a double play, then a groundout to end the inning. He walked a batter in the ninth but escaped with no further damage.

“Every time Paddack goes out there, he’s dynamite,” Keller said. “He gave us five great innings today.”

Pitching coach Brendan Sagara said Paddack exudes confidence, has a great work ethic and an outstanding attitude.

“He takes what we give him into his next outing,” Sagara said. “That’s rare for a 20-year-old. He adapts quickly and is extremely focused. He threw 69 pitches in five innings, and that’s not very many for all those strikeouts. He wasn’t messing around out there.”

Sagara also credited catcher Arturo Rodriguez with an excellent game.

“He handled three different kinds of pitchers today, and he had never caught any of them before,” Sagara said. “Paddack is kind of a classic starter, Jacome is a crafty lefty and Keller is a power right-hander.”

Paddack earned his second win and now, in 18 1/3 innings, has an ERA of 1.47 with 31 strikeouts, nine hits allowed and just two walks.

“I’m never satisfied with my last outing,” he said. “I’m excited about the numbers I put up today, but I’ve got to go right back out there the next time. There are always things I can get better at.”

The Hoppers’ offense, held to four runs in the first two games of the series, responded with 17 runs the next two. On Sunday, they tagged 18-year-old Braves starter Kolby Allard for four runs in the first inning and tacked on single runs in the third, sixth and eighth innings. A chewing out by manager Kevin Randel after Friday’s 6-2 loss provided the incentive.

“We came out flat and played tired (Friday),” Randel said. “We came out expecting to win rather than going out and getting a win. I told them to be aggressive. Focus is the key for young kids in these day-to-day routines.”

Kyle Barrett had three hits, drove in a run and scored twice to lead the way. Justin Twine had two hits and three RBIs, and Zach Sullivan and Angel Reyes each had two hits and an RBI.

The Hoppers earned a split in the series and moved their record to 33-30 with seven games remaining in the first half. They have won 21 of their last 27 games. They open a three-game series at home against Asheville Monday night with Steven Farnworth starting.

It will only take one more win by Hagerstown or one more loss by the Hoppers to eliminate Greensboro from the first-half race in the Northern Division, but that’s not what is on the players’ minds.

“Right now this team wants to win,” Paddack said. “We may not make the playoffs in the first half, but no one better go to sleep on us in the second half.”

NOTES: The game was just the second shutout of the season in NewBridge, where there has never been a no-hitter in 12 years … Hickory blanked the Hoppers here 5-0 on April 11 … It was the second shutout for the pitching staff; the first game at Delmarva, 1-0 on May 14 … Pitcher Gabriel Castellanos went on the disabled list with a sore elbow and reliever C.J. Robinson was activated.

Hoppers stifled by Braves pitching again

June 10, 2016

For Hoppers manager Kevin Randel, it’s not about the players missing from his lineup, it’s about those who are there playing better.

The Hoppers dropped their second straight game to Rome Friday night, 6-2. It was the first time they have suffered consecutive losses since May 11-12 against Delmarva. It also snapped their streak of winning seven straight series, since the best they can do now is split against the Braves.

The team is missing four regulars — outfielder Isael Soto (on DL, oblique strain), catcher Roy Morales (on DL, concussion), outfielder Stone Garrett (on DL, thumb laceration) and first baseman Josh Naylor (suspended for his part in the “prank” that injured Garrett).

“It impacts us,” Randel said of the absentees, “but you’ve got to keep moving. What we need is to put better at-bats together. We’re swinging at too many balls outside the strike zone and taking too many fastballs in the strike zone.”

After fanning 12 times in Thursday’s 4-2 loss, the Hoppers struck out 10 more times Friday, many of them looking.

“You’ve got to swing the bat and give yourself a chance with two strikes,” Randel said.

A trio of Rome pitchers held the Hoppers to five hits, three by Zach Sullivan. The only scoring came on a sacrifice fly by Angel Reyes in the sixth inning and a solo homer by Aaron Blanton in the eighth.

The third inning was the one that did the Hoppers in. Rome had picked up a run on Luke Dykstra’s RBI single. Then, with two outs, shortstop Anfernee Seymour couldn’t handle a routine grounder that would have been the third out. A run scored on that play and Justin Ellison followed with a double that scored two more. That made it 4-0, with three runs unearned, and the Hoppers never dug out of the hole.

Cody Poteet was tagged with the loss, the victim of the unearned runs. He struck out seven in his six innings and Randel thought he pitched well enough to give the team a chance. Newcomer Jordan Hillyer, in his Hoppers debut, gave up a home run to the first batter he faced and surrendered a second run in his one inning. Andy Beltre tossed two scoreless innings to finish.

Rome got a strong six innings from left-hander Max Fried, who allowed an unearned run on four hits while striking out nine. Fried was a first-round draft pick out of high school by San Diego in 2012, missed three months of the 2014 season and didn’t pitch last year. The Braves picked him up in a trade in December of 2014.

The teams play the third game of the series Saturday at 7 p.m. in NewBridge Bank Park. Chuck Weaver will start for the Hoppers.

Hoppers fall short against Rome, 4-2

June 9, 2016

Sometimes a storybook ending doesn’t work out.

The opportunity was there for Arturo Rodriguez to write one Thursday night. In his first game back with the Hoppers, he came up in the bottom of the ninth with two men on base, two outs and his team down by two runs to Rome. A home run would have won the game.

But Rodriguez, who had a pair of singles in four at-bats, couldn’t deliver. He hit a routine fly ball to right field to end the game, preserving a 4-2 win for the Braves.

“We all know what he was trying to do,” said manager Kevin Randel, referring to the home run scenario. “The adrenaline was pumping and he wound up with that popup. The best thing would have been just to keep (the rally) going.”

It was only the fifth loss in the last 24 games for the Hoppers, and in some ways it was surprising they had a chance to win because they didn’t play well. They were shut out until the ninth inning, when one run scored after left fielder Leudys Baez dropped Zach Sullivan’s line drive with two outs. Angel Reyes followed with an RBI single before Rodriguez ended it.

The Hoppers had 11 hits, all singles, but the first 10 didn’t produce any runs. The team had 17 singles (and one double) in Wednesday’s 14-inning win over Hickory, so Randel is looking for some extra base pop. Rome, in contrast, had three doubles and a homer.

Starter Jordan Holloway did not have his best stuff, giving up three runs on four hits and three walks in 4 2/3 innings. Jeff Kinley gave up a run in 2 1/3 innings and Ben Meyer pitched two shutout innings to finish.

“He couldn’t find the zone,” Randel said of the 20-year-old Holloway. “He had no feel for his secondary stuff. He’s going to have those outings.”

Anfernee Seymour had four hits and a run scored to lead the offense. He was thrown out trying to steal second base in the third inning with no outs and Joseph Chavez on third base. Chavez was stranded there when Braves pitcher Patrick Weigel struck out the next two batters. Randel took the blame for the outcome.

“(Seymour has) been running on his own all year,” Randel said, “and the first time I give him the steal sign he’s thrown out. I still thought he was going to make it.”

In the fifth inning, Chavez singled and Seymour laid down a nice bunt. Rome’s third baseman fielded it but Seymour beat the throw, which bounced off the first baseman’s glove. Second baseman Luke Dykstra picked it up and threw out Chavez trying to reach third.

“It was a reactionary play (by Chavez),” Randel said. “He saw the ball get away, but the second baseman got to it quickly.”

Rodriguez had a fine season in Greensboro last year, hitting .275 with 19 homers and 69 RBIs. But he wasn’t doing much in Jupiter this year, hitting .239 with no homers and four RBIs in 21 games. A catcher by trade, he played first base Thursday.

NOTES: Cody Poteet will start Friday’s game for the Hoppers … Dykstra, the son of former major leaguer Lenny Dykstra, had a pair of doubles and an RBI for Rome … The Braves came to town with a 23-35 record … The Hoppers, who have won seven straight series, are now 31-29.

Position players take mound in Hoppers’ win

June 8, 2016

Coming back from a trip out of town Wednesday, I checked to see if the Hoppers had played an afternoon game.

Boy, did they ever. The box score made me rub my eyes.

Greensboro won a road game over Hickory, 6-5, in 14 innings, for their 19th win in their last 23 games. Then I checked to see who pitched — and saw that third baseman Aaron Blanton was the winner and utility infielder Giovanny Alfonzo got the save.

Say what?

So I called manager Kevin Randel, who kept laughing as he explained what happened.

“That was a a wild one,” he said. “What a day. Thank goodness we won.”

A series of roster moves left the Hoppers’ bullpen in a depleted state, at least for a 14-inning game. Ben Holmes and Scott Squier, both essential to the pen all year, had recently been promoted to Jupiter. Justin Jacome and Andy Beltre had both been activated off the DL and available for limited innings. L.J. Brewster had returned from the Batavia roster.

Gabriel Castellanos started for the Hoppers but only last four innings, giving up four hits and three walks, before being taken out for pitch count. He gave up two unearned runs. Jacome, in his first game back, gave the team two innings, allowing another run.

Kyle Keller relieved Jacome and gave a sterling performance for three innings, shutting out the Crawdads and allowing only one hit while striking out three.

Keller completed his stint in the ninth inning and held the score at 3-3.

“He did a great job to get us to the 10th,” Randel said.

Randel turned next to Brewster, who hurled two shutout innings with four strikeouts.

The Hoppers scored twice in the top of the 12th to take a 5-3 lead and Jose Quijada came in to close things. But Hickory nicked him for two tuns in two-thirds of an inning to tie the game. To complicate matters, Quijada reached his 30-pitch limit.

“Blanton wasn’t in the lineup, so I sent him out to warm up in the 12th, just in case,” Randel said. “When Quijada reach 30 pitches, I had to go get him. We were out of bullets, so Blanton came in with two outs and two runners on.”

And Blanton got Connor McKay to line out to center fielder Zach Sullivan to end the inning and keep the score tied. After the Hoppers failed to score in the 13th, Blanton retired the side in order in the bottom of the inning.

“He pitched in junior college,” Randel said, “and he was throwing 90-92. He threw 18 pitches in 1 1/3 innings, but I didn’t want to take a chance on him hurting his arm.”

The Hoppers scratched out a run in the top of the 14th when Roy Morales scored from third on a Hickory error for a 6-5 lead. Alfonzo, who had played the whole game at second base, moved over to the pitcher’s mound and Justin Twine entered the game at second.

Alfonzo got the first two hitters on a flyout and strikeout. He then hit Yeyson Yrizarri, putting the tying run on base. Perhaps Yrizarri thought he could take advantage of a position player pitching. He took off for second, but catcher Korey Dunbar threw him out, with Twine covering at second, to end the game.

Blanton was the pitcher of record when the Hoppers scored the go-ahead run, so he got the win and Alfonzo earned the save. Those stats will forever be listed for the 2016 season on their professional resumes.

“Alfonzo threw kind of a funky sidearm, around 80 (mph),” Randel said. “He was more my speed. It’s pretty fun when position players pitch, but I wouldn’t want to do it again.”

After that adventure, the Hoppers open a seven-game home stand Thursday night. Rome comes in for four games, followed by Asheville for three. The club took two of three in Hickory, winning its seventh straight series.

The Hoppers will play through Sunday without first baseman Josh Naylor, who is on the suspended list. Randel could not comment on the reason, but in a national story several days ago a Marlins front office person, Michael Hill, confirmed that Naylor, during a prank of some sort, wound up cutting the thumb of his roommate, Stone Garrett, who has been placed on the DL. Naylor is ranked as the Marlins’ No. 2 prospect and leads the Hoppers with 36 RBIs. Garrett is ranked the No. 4 prospect.

NOTES: The Hoppers had 18 hits, 17 of them singles … Angel Reyes went 5-for-7 and scored twice and Morales went 4-for-6 and scored twice. Each of them drove in a run … Dunbar picked up two RBIs and Kyle Barrett had the other.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.