Bill on Baseball: Hoppers Keep Big Picture in Focus
by Bill Hass
As players learn and grow through their first full season of pro baseball, so does a manager.
The Hoppers lost their home finale Thursday night, 7-0 to Rome, and were officially eliminated from any chance at making the South Atlantic League playoffs. But the result of this one game didn't spoil anything about the bigger picture for manager Miguel Perez.
"For a first taste of Greensboro it was a great year," he said.
The Hoppers carry a 77-57 record into their final four games at West Virginia. That's the fourth-most games won in the 15 years of the Hoppers era. If they can win two more games, they'll tie for the third-most (79 by the 2011 team) and three more would tie them for second (80 by the 2012 team).
Records aside, Perez is most proud of the tone set at the start of the season and carried through.
"I said at the beginning that I wanted the players to play free and have fun," he said. "That's one of the best ways to learn how to play the game. You don't have to show them how to do everything. The game is the best teacher."
Perez said he wanted his players to be willing to take risks, even if they turned into mistakes. That led to teaching points, conversations and working on correcting their mistakes.
In the first half of the split season, he had a roster that won 44 games, a total that would have earned a playoff spot in most years. But this happened to be the year that Delmarva won 48 games to win the Northern Division.
Three excellent offensive players - power hitter Mason Martin, fleet Lolo Sanchez and promising Rodolfo Castro - were promoted to Bradenton, along with a slew of pitchers. Even though some stars emerged in the second half, particularly infielder Ji-Hwan Bae and outfielder Jonah Davis, the roster wasn't quite as strong. Thursday's loss left the Hoppers at 33-32 in the second half.
Still, there were no complaints from Perez or his staff.
"This is the most fun I've had a long time," said pitching coach Stan Kyles, now in his 28th season. "It was very satisfying and rewarding. This is a great atmosphere for learning. The park is conducive to learning to concentrate and being on top of your game. It's not as unforgiving as I had heard. If you make quality pitches, you can have a nice year here."
Hitting coach Chris Petersen said the hitters came into the season wanting to produce runs.
"And we accomplished that," he said. "We lead the league in runs scored and RBIs. Everybody got better and learned something and contributed in their own way."
Rome left-hander Mitch Stallings, a 30th-round pick out of Duke by the Braves in 2018, held the Hoppers in check Thursday. Recently named the Appalachian League's Pitcher of the Year, Stallings went eight innings and threw 104 pitches in his third straight win since being promoted to Rome.
The Hoppers hit some balls that were caught on the warning track, but never mounted a serious threat. They did load the bases in the ninth with no outs against hard-throwing reliever Luis Mora, but he struck out three in a row to end the game.
Bryce Ball, the Appalachian League's Player of the Year, hit two homers and drove in five runs for Rome. The first came in the sixth inning when he sliced a ball into the left field corner that home plate umpire Tyler Witte ruled a home run. Hoppers starter Alex Manasa protested hotly that it was foul and Perez argued for quite some time. The three-run shot moved the score to 4-0 and changed the tone of the game.
Ball's second homer, off reliever Alfredo Reyes, came with one runner on base and went to right field. They were his third and fourth with Rome after he hit 13 in Danville and 18 in college this year at Dallas Baptist.
NOTES: Bae went 1-for-3, beating out a bunt for a base hit, to keep his average at .324 ... That leads the South Atlantic League ... "It would be great if he wins it," Perez said. "The game is rewarding him right now." ... In second place is Terrin Vavra of Asheville at .318, but he's on the Injured List and hasn't played since Aug. 5.
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