Not many game plans are executed the way Sean Townsley did Wednesday afternoon.
Before the game against hot-hitting Kannapolis, pitching coach Jeremy Powell said what Hoppers pitchers had to do was twofold: (1) make the hitters uncomfortable by pitching inside, and (2) get ahead in the count.
Townsley responded by throwing seven shutout innings as the Hoppers stopped the Intimidators cold, 3-0. The big left-hander from High Point University allowed only two singles and two walks while recording a season-high nine strikeouts.
"I felt dialed in and focused on the task at hand," Townsley said. "I got ahead in the count and worked both side of the plate. I knew their hitters were confident, so I threw inside and got them uncomfortable."
After watching the Intimidators pummel Hoppers pitching Monday and Tuesday for 24 runs and 34 hits, including seven home runs, Townsley said he didn't feel any extra pressure.
"I've always been a competitor ever since I was a kid," he said. "I just go out and control what I can control."
Early in the game, he said, he got some strikeouts with elevated fastballs. Then he relied on his knuckle curve, which he throws with the index finger tucked under so the middle finger will create more spin on the ball.
"I stand on the first-base side of the rubber against right-handed hitters," he said, "and that pitch looks like it's out of the zone but it sweeps across the plate."
Pitching coach Jeremy Powell said Townsley was efficient and his curve was crisp and more of a weapon than just a "show me" off-speed pitch.
Sean Donatello retired the side in order in the eighth and Tyler Kinley picked up his sixth save in the ninth to nail down Townsley's fourth straight win and fifth overall.
"Both Donatello and Kinley have done a great job in the ninth inning," Powell said. "We're sort of in a two-closer situation right now, and that's nice to have."
Kinley, a power pitcher, made things interesting. He hit the first batter, struck out the second and walked the third to bring the tying run to the plate. But he froze Danny Hayes with a curve ball for a called third strike and then blew one by Jacob Morris at 97 miles per hour to end the game.
"I'm confident with each pitch," Kinley said, "so on a bad one I swallow and move on. I want to attack and challenge the hitter until he proves he can beat me. I knew they were swinging the bats well, but I was thinking 'they haven't faced me yet.'"
Kannapolis left-hander Jeff McKenzie nearly matched Townsley. He shut out the Hoppers for three innings but J.T. Riddle led off the fourth with a home run and Avery Romero added a sacrifice fly that scored Rehiner Cordova later in the inning. That 2-0 score stood until the bottom of the eighth, when Austin Dean's RBI single scored Cordova with an insurance run. It extended Dean's hitting streak to 12 games.
Hopper manager David Berg said it took the hitters one time through the order to figure out they weren't going to see many fastballs from McKenzie.
"He was throwing soft, with curves and changeups, and relying on location and changing speeds," Riddle said. "So I waited on a curve and when he left one up I put a good swing on it. My junior year at Kentucky we had almost an all-lefty staff so in fall practice I got used to hitting against them. Now I see left-handers as well as I do right-handers."
Riddle's homer continued his trait of acting as a catalyst with clutch hits.
"He takes the game in stride and doesn't change anything," said hitting coach Frank Moore. "By not changing his approach, he comes up with a lot of hits in big situations."
The win enabled the Hoppers to salvage one of three games in the series and finish the home stand 3-3. Next they head out for four games at West Virginia. Ryan Newell, 8-1 on the road, will start Thursday and Jarlin Garcia Friday. Domingo German will miss his next start while he competes in the Futures Game on July 13, so someone will make a spot start in his place.
ALUMNI NOTES: Jose Fernandez (2012), recovering from Tommy John surgery is doing some range of motion exercises but it will be quite awhile before he begins a throwing program. Every pitcher is different, but typically it takes 12-14 months for recovery … Jake Smolinski (2009) was brought up by the Texas Rangers and played two games in left field, going 2-for-6. He hit .281 with 7 homers and 31 RBIs here in 77 games … Brett Carroll (2005) was released by Toronto. Carroll played in 118 major-league games with Florida, Minnesota and Washington, hitting .201 with 5 homers and 28 RBIs.