The Hoppers have to get hot.
After Thursday's 5-2 loss to Delmarva, they have 18 games remaining in the regular season. They trail first-place Lakewood by 3 1/2 games in the Northern Division of the SAL. That's not insurmountable by any means, but the problem is that they're just one of six teams with a shot at winning the second half, so they simply can't afford many more losses.
Hickory comes in for a four-game series starting Friday night. Simply put, the Hoppers, with a 26-26 record, need to win at least three of those games. A split does them little or no good.
"We have to get rolling," said manager Kevin Randel. "We don't have to win every game, but we need to start winning series."
To do that, the team has got to execute better on offense because runs are exceptionally difficult to come by. The Hoppers have won just two of their last 10 games, scoring only 17 runs in that span. They're unlikely to go out and thump anybody.
"We're not doing the little things right now," Randel said. "We need those big runs because we're not going to hit three-run dingers (home runs) very often. Situational hitting is what it all comes down to."
That means moving runners over and then getting a clutch hit, or at least a sacrifice fly, to drive them in. In Thursday's game, for instance, Aaron Blanton reached second base on a Delmarva throwing error to open the fifth inning. He had to hold there when Stone Garrett grounded out to third. John Silviano singled to right field, but Blanton hesitated to see if the ball would be caught and was held at third base. Zach Sullivan struck out and Gio Alfonzo hit into a fielder's choice to end the inning.
In the bottom of the 10th, down three runs, the Hoppers got the first two hitters on base, then made three straight outs to strand them.
Some good defense aided the Shorebirds. In the ninth, Garrett walked and Sullivan laced a grounder just inside third base that appeared headed into the Hoppers' bullpen. It was probably a double and might have scored Garrett - except third baseman Ricardo Andujar, guarding the line, made a fine backhand stop and long throw to nip Sullivan for the third out.
The Hoppers' runs came on a solo homer in the sixth by Justin Twine and an RBI double by Sullivan in the seventh that followed Garrett's double.
Starting pitcher L.J. Brewster gave up two runs in the first three innings, then shut out Delmarva over the next three to keep the game close. Trey Lambert followed with two scoreless innings and Marcus Crescentini had an adventure in the ninth, loading the bases before getting a strikeout to end it.
"I thought Brewster did his job," pitching coach Brendan Sagara said. "Even their base hits were ground balls, not ringing doubles. He was good, Lambert was good and Crescentini wasn't sharp but got it done."
The surprise came when C.J. Robinson, rock-steady all season, came on in the 10th inning. He quickly disposed of the first two hitters, then gave up a single to Alex Murphy. Natanael Delgado followed with a two-run homer and Stuart Levy added a solo homer and suddenly Delmarva had a 5-2 lead.
"It was definitely disappointing, quite unlike him," Sagara said of Robinson. "He threw a couple of careless pitches and left them over the plate. I don't know what happened. He was throwing his fastball at 88-89 (miles per hour) and he didn't use his good slider. When you throw one speed, they catch up with it. You need another trick in your bag."
It was only the second time all season that Robinson surrendered three runs in a game. The other came on April 9, the second game of the season, and that took 1 2/3 innings.
Isaac Gil will make his first start for the Hoppers in the opener against Hickory.