Bill on Baseball: Shutout Pitching Carries Hoppers
by Bill Hass
A shutout is always a source of pride for a pitching staff.
The Hoppers delivered one Saturday night, blanking Augusta 7-0. It was the staff's 10th shutout of the season and fourth at home.
"A shutout is a shot in the arm," said pitching coach Stan Kyles. "And it makes the pitching coach feel pretty good."
The bulk of the work was done by Winston Nicacio, making a spot start for Colin Selby. The right-hander settled into a groove early and Augusta never mounted a serious threat during his six innings. Nicacio allowed just three hits, didn't walk anyone and hit one batter. Fifty-two of his 82 pitches were strikes.
"He's fearless," Kyles said. "He throws strikes and goes right after guys. He has a really good mound presence and gets in favorable counts, which allows him to be effective."
The 22-year-old joined the Hoppers in late July from the New York-Penn League. He's used to throwing multiple innings, including five in a spot start against Asheville. He allowed two runs, only one earned, in that game. In four appearances since then, Nicacio has pitched 16 innings, allowed no runs, given up just six hits, struck out 16 and issued no walks.
"He really mixes his pitches and is never predictable," said catcher Grant Koch. "He had a good plan and we were on the same page."
Manager Miguel Perez said it was fun to watch Nicacio, who was originally signed by St. Louis in 2017 and claimed off waivers by the Pirates in December of 2018.
"He's been solid since he's been here," Perez said. "You can rely on him every time he's on the mound."
Will Gardner followed with two innings, working around a hit and a walk. Mike LoPresti pitched the ninth and preserved the shutout. He gave up a double to the first hitter he faced, who moved to third on a groundout. But LoPresti got a strikeout and a groundout to end the game. It was a confidence booster him, coming after a tough outing at Kannapolis.
"That's huge for him," Kyles said. "He's so intense and aggressive but tonight he was under control."
Offensively, Jonah Davis cracked his 16th homer in the third inning to give the Hoppers the only run they would need.
"I was sitting on a fastball but he left a curve up and I let my hands go to it," Davis said.
The add-on runs came in a variety of ways - three bases-loaded walks, a hit batter with the bases loaded and a wild pitch. The last run came on an infield hit by Jack Herman that scored Connor Kaiser from second base.
Augusta's pitching fell apart in the seventh inning when the game was within reach at 2-0. Reliever Keith Weisenberg walked four straight batters to force in a run, then left the game with an apparent injury. The next pitcher, Dylan Davis, then hit Kyle Mottice to score another run and walked Koch to force in one more.
Luke Mangieri pulled off the unusual feat of walking twice with the bases loaded to pick up two RBIs.
"I was just trying to be patient," Mangieri said. "The pressure is on the pitcher with the bases loaded. I just took what they gave me. At the end of the day, a run scored is a run scored and it doesn't matter how."
Davis finished with three hits and two runs scored as he continued his stellar play since returning from extended spring training.
"He struggled early in the season," Perez said, "but the best thing that happened was to go to extended spring. Down there, he could work on things without the pressure of those numbers (statistics). I told him he was going to be our man in the second half of the season. He works hard every day and the best thing is he's getting better."
The teams finish the four-game series Sunday at 4 p.m. Alex Manasa (9-3) will start for the Hoppers.
NOTES: Left fielder Jack Herman threw out an Augusta runner at third base in the fifth inning ... The Hoppers didn't gain any ground on Hickory, which won its fifth straight game Saturday ... They trail the Crawdads by 2 1/2 games in the overall standings, which is their best way to make the playoffs.
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