As Babe retires, Hoppers finish home season with a win

Sept. 2, 2015

The Hoppers won one for Babe.

Greensboro’s celebrated black Labrador retriever ended her consecutive-games streak at 649 Wednesday as the Hoppers beat Lakewood 10-6 in the final home game of the season. She delivered her final bucket of baseballs to home plate umpire Mac Dietz in the second inning, fetched her final bat after Austen Smith grounded out in the fourth inning and ran the bases for the last time after the game.

And, after retrieving a ball thrown into the outfield, she used the green grass as her restroom for a final time before heading into retirement.

Her bucket will be sent to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and Smith’s bat is destined for the Greensboro Historical Museum.

With all that going on, how could the Hoppers not have won?

They did, snapping a seven-game losing streak and avoiding a five-game series sweep, by hitting four home runs, which accounted for nine of their runs.

“It was nice that the offense showed up today,” said manager Kevin Randel. “(Scoring on home runs) has been our M.O. all year.”

Smith set the tone in the first inning with a titanic three-run blast to straightaway center that hit well up the batter’s eye backdrop. Later, Felix Castillo, Justin Twine and John Norwood all hit two-run shots. Castillo added the only non-home run RBI on a groundout.

Smith said Lakewood pitcher Shane Watson had thrown him a curve on the previous pitch and he was looking for it again.

“He left it up and I made up my mind I wasn’t going to miss it,” he said. “When you hit it off the sweet spot like that, you don’t even feel it off the bat.”

Smith used the same bat his next time up, but after Babe retrieved it the bat disappeared.

“It was really funny,” Smith said. “I looked for it my next time up and couldn’t find it. Someone said it was going to the Hall of Fame (bad information, as it turned out). So I grabbed one out of the bat rack.”

He popped up that time, but got his original bat back in the seventh inning and singled, putting him on base for Twine’s homer.

Relief pitching, as it has done often this season, saved the day. Jose Velez struck out three in an inning-and-a-third to pick up the win. Kyle Fischer pitched the last two innings and earned his 12th save.

“Fischer wasn’t at his best,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell, “but he got the job done. Velez really picked us up.”

The Hoppers will leave Thursday morning to begin a five-game series at Asheville to end the season. Despite the cities being just three hours apart, this will be the first meeting between the teams this season.

“It was good to win the last home game,” Norwood said, “and give the fans something to be happy about. Now maybe we can go win a series in Asheville to finish the season.”

It will be no easy task. Since Savannah won both halves in the Southern Division, the Tourists are in a battle with Greenville for the second playoff spot and will field their best lineup every day. They lead the league in stolen bases.

NOTES: It was the 17th homer of the season for Smith, 15th for Norwood, seventh for Twine and second for Castillo … Newcomer Ben Meyer gave the Hoppers two scoreless innings of relief before giving up two runs in his third inning of work … The BlueClaws hit a pair of homers, bringing the combined total for the afternoon to six.

Lakewood pounds Hoppers early

Sept. 1, 2015

Tuesday night’s game wasn’t over before it started, but it was over shortly after it started.

Reeling from six straight losses, the Hoppers needed a strong effort from their starting pitcher to stem the bleeding and keep them in a close game. Instead, Enderson Franco was torched for five runs by Lakewood in the top of the first inning. It went single, single, sacrifice, walk, two-run single, flyout, two-run double, single, wild pitch to score a run and finally a flyout to end it.

Five runs, five hits (every one hit hard), one walk, one wild pitch. Essentially, game over. The final count was 9-0.

Franco started the top of the third by giving up a single, a homer, a triple and an RBI single before finally getting an out. After issuing a walk, he was pulled by manager Kevin Randel. His line: 2 1-3 innings, 10 hits and eight runs.

That left a lot of innings for the bullpen to cover. To their credit, Leurys De La Rosa, Ryan Hafner and Jeff Kinley combined for 6 2-3 innings and surrendered only one run.

“The bullpen did a great job finishing the game,” Randel said.

That was the extent of the highlights for the Hoppers, who were held by six hits by a pair of Lakewood pitchers. Austen Smith had two of those.

The BlueClaws pounded out 16 hits, giving them 44 in the last three games. Drew Stankiewicz had three of them and he’s 10-for-15 over that span. Cord Sandeberg had three more, including a double and homer worth four RBIs.

The teams wrap up their five-game series in NewBridge Bank Park at 4 p.m. today. With Tyler Kolek shut down by the Marlins for the remainder of the season, Kelvin Rivas will get the spot start as the Hopper try to prevent a sweep.

It’s the last home game of the season for the Hoppers and the final game for the retiring batdog Miss Babe Ruth, whose consecutive games streak will end at 649.

NOTES: Zach Morris, from the University of Maryland, earned a three-inning save in relief of Lakewood starter Jairo Munoz … Lakewood is 17-7 against the Hoppers this season and 53-55 against the rest of the league.

Lakewood deal Hoppers a 5-3 loss

Aug. 31, 2015

It’s been a season-long struggle to score runs for the Hoppers and Monday night was no exception as they dropped a 5-3 decision to Lakewood in NewBridge Bank Park.

Out of 14 teams in the South Atlantic League, the Hoppers rank last in batting average, hits and runs, 12th in strikeouts and 13th in walks drawn.

“Tonight was an example of how hard it is for us to score,” said manager Kevin Randel. “There were a lot of balls not put in play (because of 13 strikeouts) and we don’t get many free passes, so it’s tough for us to push runs across.”

The Hoppers rank second in the league with 93 homers, and their three runs Monday came on a two-run shot by Taylor Munden and a solo homer by Austen Smith. But what they couldn’t do — and haven’t been doing with any consistency — is drive in runs with a clutch single or double. They stranded 10 runners and left the bases loaded once.

There were a couple of close calls. In the bottom of the seventh, down by two runs with runners on second and third, a grounder by Arturo Rodriguez past third base was just foul.

“Six inches to the right and it would have been a tie game,” Randel said.

In the fifth, Rodriguez delivered a two-out single with John Norwood on second base. Randel waved Norwood home, forcing the BlueClaws to make a play. And they did when left fielder Cord Sandberg uncorked a one-hop throw to catcher Deivi Grullon, who tagged the sliding Norwood for the third out.

“I had made up my mind to send him,” Randel said, “but Sandberg made a great throw.”

That’s the way things go when you’re 48-84 and in a six-game losing streak.

Greensboro did manage 10 hits — two each by Smith, Rodriguez and Felix Castillo. But Norwood struck out four times, Zach Sullivan three times and K.J. Woods went 0-for-5 against the Lakewood shift.

The Hoppers tagged starter Austin Davis for three runs in six innings, but the pitcher they couldn’t take advantage of was reliever Jeff Zgardowski. In two innings he allowed five baserunners (three hits, two walks) and somehow wriggled out of it without allowing a run. Six strikeouts helped, including Woods to retire the side with the bases loaded in the seventh and Sullivan with runners at the corners to end the eighth.

The pitching staff rebounded from being shelled for 15 runs on Sunday. Starter Gabriel Castellanos kept the score close, although he threw 96 pitches and couldn’t make it out of the sixth inning. James Buckelew relieved and promptly threw wild on a pickoff attempt, advancing a runner to second base. That error cost a run when Herlis Rodriguez followed with an RBI single.

“If you’re not mentally tough enough, things can creep up and affect you,” said pitching coach Jeremy Powell. “Part of a pitcher’s job is to finish strong and be ready to compete every game. Nobody remembers what you do in April but they remember what you do in August and September.”

Hoppers pitching has been torched by Drew Stankiewicz and Grullon in the last two games. Stankiewicz is 7-for-10 with four runs scored while Grullon is 6-for-9 with two homers and eight RBIs.

NOTES: The BlueClaws own a 16-7 advantage over the Hoppers this season … Enderson Franco draws the start for Tuesday’s game for Greensboro … Smith’s homer was his 15th and pushed his RBIs to 46 … Munden’s homer was his second.

Lakewood beats Hoppers in bizarre game

Aug. 30, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We had the tying run at the plate,” said Randel, shaking his head.

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

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

Game of frustration on night of celebration

Aug. 29, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s where the “almosts” figured in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hoppers win with 3 homers, clutch relief work

Aug. 23, 2015

The third time was a charm for Ryan Hafner Sunday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woods, Davis, bullpen come through for Hoppers

Aug. 22, 2015

Amnesia worked for K.J. Woods Saturday night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hickory pitching shuts down Hoppers 3-1

Aug. 21, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schales the catalyst as Hoppers down Hickory

Aug. 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hoppers fall in extra innings again

Aug. 19, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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