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Chipper Smith feels he's back where he belongs, and Wednesday night he made a strong case for staying there.
The left-hander was masterful, throwing one-hit ball over seven innings to lead the Hoppers to a 3-0 win over Hickory. He retired 21 out of 22 batters he faced, striking out 11.
"I felt good and I was on the same page with (catcher Jose) Behar," Smith said. "We knew what we wanted to do before they even stepped in the box."
It was a perfect example of not having to overpower a team in order to win. Smith established his fastball on both sides of the plate, then used his changeup and curve to get the Crawdads swinging and missing.
Hickory is an aggressive team at the plate and had hit 167 home runs coming into the game, 63 more than the runner-up Hoppers. But the Crawdads also led in strikeouts, fanning 1,351 times, 180 more than Greenville. Smith kept them off-balance and lunging most of the night.
He retired the first 13 hitters before Nomar Mazara's soft liner over the infield landed near the left-field foul line and went for a double. Unfazed, Smith got the next two outs to end the fourth inning and then the final six hitters he faced.
"Everyone knows what's going on," he said of being perfect until the double. "After that I had to make sure they didn't build any kind of momentum."
After throwing 99 pitches through seven innings, Smith's night was over. With only a three-run lead against the explosive Crawdads, the bullpen was charged with finishing the task. Dane Stone preserved the lead in the eighth, giving up a walk but getting a popup, a fly out and a strikeout. Ronald Barnes struck out the side in the ninth to earn his fifth save and running the strikeout total to 15 for the game.
"It's just pitching" said Hoppers coach Blake McGinley, "and if you do that you will have success. He was confident and locked in, commanded his fastball and changeup and used his curve ball for strikeouts and an out pitch."
Catcher Jose Behar said Hickory is a team that hunts fastballs early in the count.
"The key was mixing his pitches and not repeating them," Behar said. "He had three pitches he could throw for strikes in any count. It seemed easy for him. All I had to do was sit back there and watch him perform.
"I've never seen his changeup like that before. It looked like a fastball out of his hand and then it was like pulling a string."
It was Smith's fifth start but first victory since being inserted in the rotation on Aug. 4. He had made 28 appearances out of the bullpen, mostly with success - he was 7-0 at one point. But he had always been a starter before this season and that's what he wanted to do again.
"It was a matter of getting back into a routine," he said, "and it's something I've done my whole life. I like it when I can get in a groove like that. Out of the pen, I never knew what situation I would be in, so I just tried to take advantage of every opportunity."
Smith used to throw a slider but didn't command it that well, so he learned the curve. He credited McGinley with helping him with that pitch and other things.
"He has taught me to be mentally focused, to stay on top and to learn how to pitch and not just throw the ball," Smith said.
There weren't many hard-hit balls against Smith. Jorge Alfaro drove one to deep center in the fifth but Jesus Solorzano ran it down. And in the seventh, Joey Gallo lined one back at Smith that he stabbed with a short, awkward jump to his right.
"I just threw up my glove and prayed," he said. "They were laughing in the dugout."
Manager Jorge Hernandez coached third base in the first inning, then turned it over to hitting coach Frank Moore for the second straight night. Moore wasn't as busy as Tuesday, when the Hoppers, scored nine runs, but he didn't need to be.
Viosergy Rosa singled in a run in the third inning, Austin Dean scored on a throwing error on Behar's sacrifice bunt in the fourth and Matt Juengel belted his 13th home run in the fifth. That was all the support Smith needed.
"That's the best I've seen him all year," Hernandez said. "He was in total control in inning one and in total control in inning seven."