After a long spring training, everyone on the Hoppers roster was ready to begin the season.
And no one got off to a better start than Dalton Wheat. The newcomer to the Miami Marlins' system turned out to be the catalyst for the Hoppers' 14-4 thumping of Hickory in a chilly season opener Thursday night at First National Bank Field.
Playing his first game in affiliated baseball - the minor league farm teams for the major leagues - Wheat went 3-for-4, drove in five runs and scored four times. He fell a single shy of hitting for the cycle.
"I definitely felt some nervousness before the game," Wheat said. "But it's the same game - they throw the ball and I have to hit it."
And did he ever hit it. The left-handed batter cracked a two-run homer to the opposite field in his first at-bat to stake the Hoppers to a 2-0 lead.
"It was an outside fastball," he said of the home run, "and I thought it had a chance to get out but I wasn't sure. I was hustling for a double, maybe a triple, when I saw it was a homer."
His second time up Wheat smashed a low fastball to deep center that caromed off the wall for a two-run triple during a five-run inning as the Hoppers pushed the lead to 7-1.
On his third trip he got lucky, lifting a high popup that found no-man's zone between the shortstop, second baseman and center fielder. When it dropped in safely, Wheat was on second base with a double.
"I thought it was an out," he said, "but I still ran hard out of the box."
Now he was three-quarters of the way to the cycle, lacking only a single. On his fourth at-bat Wheat resisted the temptation to swing at a bad pitch and drew a bases-loaded walk, picking up his fifth RBI. He drew another walk on his fifth time up, taking four pitches that were nowhere near the strike zone.
The Hoppers had scored so many runs that Wheat got a rare sixth at-bat in the bottom of the eighth inning. His teammates were well aware of what was at stake and gave him encouragement in the dugout. He hit the ball sharply, but right at Hickory's first baseman, who snagged the one-hopper and made the unassisted putout.
Not a bad debut for a player who was in the independent American Association last season. Wheat went undrafted after completing his career at Emporia State, a Division II school in Kansas. He signed with the Kansas City T-Bones in June and hit .335, drawing the interest of the Marlins.
"They were the only team that contacted me," he said, "and they bought my contract."
Wheat, with no guarantees, had a good spring and broke camp with the Hoppers, eager for the chance to begin proving himself.
"We're all ready to start playing games that matter," he said.
To Todd Pratt, a victor in his professional managerial debut, Wheat's performance wasn't a big surprise.
"He's one of those guys who got overlooked," Pratt said. "He hit about .350 in college and I liked what I saw of him this spring. He had good at-bats all night and that was a big home run to open things for us after we gave up a run in the top of the first."
Pratt liked what the entire offense did, banging out 13 hits and drawing 12 walks. Left fielder Corey Bird had three hits, two RBIs and a pair of stolen bases and catcher Alex Jones added three hits and scored twice.
The defense made no errors and contributed two excellent plays. Jones threw out a baserunner in the first inning that thwarted Hickory's running game. In the fourth inning, Bird laid out for a diving catch that saved a run which would have cut the lead to 7-5.
The pitching held up on a night that started at 55 degrees and ended at 47, with a hard wind blowing almost non-stop. Starter Jordan Holloway was tagged for four runs before leaving in the fourth because of his pitch count, but Pratt still liked the way he threw.
L.J. Brewster sparkled with 2 2/3 innings of shutout relief to pick up the win. Michael King, Marcus Crescentini and Michael Mertz each added a shutout inning. All told, the Hoppers staff racked up 15 strikeouts, five by Holloway and four by Brewster.
Pratt said he was aware of what the game meant to the players who were wearing Hoppers uniforms during the 14-game losing streak that ended last season. Holloway, Brewster, Crescentini and second baseman Justin Twine had that bad taste washed away by the sweetness of winning the opener.
The teams play Friday night at 7, with Alex Mateo starting for Greensboro.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.