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Hoppers Drop Series Opener to Hickory
08/22/2016 9:30 AM ET

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It took the Hoppers more than a month to find their offensive stride this season.

Now they're looking for it again, but they don't have a month left to find it. Only 17 games remain in the regular season and things are beginning to slip away.

An 8-3 loss to Hickory Friday night left the Hoppers 4 1/2 games behind Lakewood, the leader in the SAL's Northern Division. And of the six teams in contention for the second-half title, the Hoppers are sixth at 26-27. The standings can fluctuate on any given night, but that's a lot of teams between the Hoppers and their goal.

The Hoppers have lost nine of their last 11 games, scoring just 20 runs. They haven't scored more than three runs in a game since Aug. 6, when they beat Kannapolis 5-3. And those five runs are the high-water mark for the month.

There's no magic potion for manager Kevin Randel to concoct. Wearing special jerseys hasn't helped - there was no win in the tropical jerseys Thursday and none in the military appreciation tops Friday. And bringing retired bat dog Miss Babe Ruth out of retirement to sub for the injured Lou Lou Gehrig provided no relief Friday.

The Hoppers started the season in a dreadful hitting slump - it took about three weeks to bring the team average above .200 - but they found a way out of it. So how did they turn it around?

"People have asked me that," Randel said, "but I can't think of one thing we did. There wasn't one at-bat or one inning that turned us around and no one carried us. It was done throughout the lineup, a team effort, like a wave. I can't wait for the next one to start."

The offense is going so badly now that it has little chance to overcome a rare off-night by the pitching staff. It scored three runs in the first four innings, then was shut out over the final five.

It was a committee approach to pitching Friday. Isaac Gil, who had not allowed a run in 13 2/3 innings out of the bullpen, got the start and breezed through the first, then was tagged for four runs (one unearned) in the next three innings. He left with a 4-3 deficit that the Hoppers couldn't make up. Newcomer Preston Guillory had the only success among four relievers, pitching a scoreless inning. Hickory scored in five of the nine innings.

"You could smell that it was one of those days coming," Randel said. "They've been so good lately. But a loss is a loss and whether it's 4-3 or 10-3, it hurts just as much."

The offense did manage 10 hits, but nine of them were singles. Gunner Pollman hit his first homer as a Hopper and added a single. Angel Reyes picked up two RBIs with a pair of singles and Zach Sullivan added two more hits.

The Hoppers get three more cracks at the Crawdads in this series. Ben Meyer draws the start for the second game Saturday at 7 p.m. at NewBridge Bank Park. (Full confession: I will not be able to attend this game but will return Sunday.)

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
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