Bill on Baseball: Hoppers Take Aim on Shorebirds
by Bill Hass
There are still 40 games left in the first half of the South Atlantic League schedule, so it's probably too early to talk about the importance of any series, right?
Well, maybe not.
The Hoppers open a three-game series at Delmarva Wednesday night and then face the Shorebirds four more times next week in Greensboro. It's a golden opportunity to pick up some ground on the Northern Division leaders.
Rarely will a coach or a player admit that any particular series this time of year is more important than any other. But the truth is, these upcoming seven games really are.
"We're trying to secure a playoff spot by winning the first half," said Hoppers pitcher Brad Case on Sunday.
In order to do that, the Hoppers must first pass Hickory in the standings and then catch Delmarva. As well as Greensboro has been playing - 13 wins in its last 15 games - it has gained very little ground on the Shorebirds, who are an eye-opening 24-4.
Delmarva is unlikely to maintain the .857 winning percentage it currently enjoys. But even if the Shorebirds cool off, the Hoppers are five games behind - six in the loss column - and that's a lot of ground to make up.
One of the ways they can do it is by beating the Shorebirds head-to-head. That's why the seven upcoming games with them are so important. Personally, I think the Hoppers need to win five of those to cut significantly into the lead. They also need to keep piling up victories no matter which opponent is in front of them.
The Hoppers' recent surge is the result of excellent balance. The starting pitching has been superb. Osvaldo Bido is 5-0, tied for the league lead in wins and fourth among all starters with a 1.26 ERA. Case and Nick Economos are both 4-1 and Alex Manasa is 3-0. The bullpen has been solid.
"This group has shown a lot of confidence," said pitching coach Stan Kyles. "I knew that we had guys who would be a good fit, a lot of strike-throwers. They're feeding off each other as they learn their craft."
Case said there's good communication among the pitchers.
"It's fun watching Bido and Manasa go right after guys," he said. "They're right in front of me (in the rotation) and I talk to them about how they approach the lineup. I talk to Moose (Economos) behind me. And the bullpen is always ready to rip."
Even when the Hoppers were struggling mightily at the plate, the pitching helped the team stay in games and manage a 7-8 record to keep from falling into a deep hole. Since the hitters found their stride, the Hoppers are 13-2.
"Most of us played together last year," Case said, "so we saw what we could do. We knew it was a matter of time before the hitters came around. Now we'll try to stay hot and keep going."
During the early slump that saw the Hoppers last in the league with a .184 batting average, hitting coach Chris Petersen said everyone was working hard in the cages and eventually it would pay off. And he was right.
As a team, the Hoppers are now at .231, an improvement of nearly 50 points, and tied for seventh in the league. Lolo Sanchez ranks 11th in the SAL with a .324 average and leads with five triples. Rodolfo Castro's 10 home runs rank second and Mason Martin's eight homers rank third. Pat Dorrian is fourth with 10 doubles.
While the Hoppers score often with the long ball - their 40 homers lead the league - Petersen is happiest when they take advantage of their situational hitting. He was especially proud of an 8-2 win over West Virginia when six of the runs were scored with two-out RBIs.
"This is a tight-knit group," he said, "and I'm happy with where the team is. We're having fun, and when one of our guys has an off-day, others pick him up."
Even recent roster movement hasn't slowed things down. Infielder Chase Lambert went to High-A Bradenton, as did hard-throwing bullpen guys Shea Murray and Nick Mears. Shortstop Connor Kaiser went on the injured list.
Infielder Kyle Mottice joined the club and promptly went 6-for-8 with three stolen bases and five runs scored in three games. Another infielder, Michael Gretler, went 3-for-10 with a pair of RBIs. Yerry de los Santos and John O'Reilly were added to the bullpen and each threw a shutout inning in his Hoppers debut.
So it's a team on a roll against a team that has been hot all season. Should be fun.
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