Just when the Hoppers were about to lose sight of the Delmarva Shorebirds, help came from two unexpected sources Wednesday afternoon.
Jonah Davis knocked in two runs and newcomer Colin Selby threw four strong innings to help the Hoppers to a 4-1 win in the second game of a doubleheader. The Birds took the opener 3-2.
Here's why winning the second game was important. After the first game, the Hoppers fell 5 1/2 games behind Delmarva in the SAL Northern Division. Losing the second game would have pushed them 6 1/2 behind.
Instead, Greensboro is back to within 4 1/2 games. If they win Thursday's 7 o'clock game, they will split the four-game series and pull back within 3 1/2 games. The Hoppers need to stay as close as they can because they don't play the Shorebirds again in the first half of the season and must to rely on other teams to beat them in order to gain ground.
"We need every game we can win," said manager Miguel Perez.
After a tough loss in the opener, Perez didn't feel the need for an inspirational speech between games.
"Sometimes it's best not to say anything," he said. "They knew the situation. And it's not like we played a bad game, so there was no reason to address anything."
After leaving the bases loaded in the first inning of game two without scoring, the Hoppers loaded them again in the second. This time things the results were different. One run scored on a wild pitch, Davis singled in another and Mason Martin drove in a third. Davis tripled in the fourth inning to drive in an insurance run.
It was a solid game for Davis, who has struggled to get much going. His average stood at .104 entering the game but he felt he was coming around.
"I've been focusing on hitting the ball hard," Davis said, "and not focusing on the numbers. You can't get too caught up in those because it's still early. I've been working on better balance and getting my hands ready to hit, keeping them loose and fluid."
It's easy to understand why the Pirates are willing to be patient. After Davis was drafted in the 15th round last summer out of Cal-Berkeley, he had a fine season at Bristol in the Appalachian League. In 51 games he hit .306 with 15 doubles, six triples, 12 homers and 34 RBIs. He felt he had a good spring training but suffered a setback with an injury that affected his timing.
He has shown ability in flashes - his 10 hits have produced 14 RBIs and in his last four games he's gone 5-for-15 with six RBIs.
"I'm feeling better physically and mentally," he said. "This is a good day to build on."
Hitting coach Chris Petersen said Davis has been working to get his success in batting practice to translate into games. In his first at-bat, for instance, the left-handed Davis went to the opposite field for an RBI single on a two-strike pitch. His second hit was a sharply-struck grounder that kicked off first base into the right field corner. Davis used his speed to stretch it into a triple.
"He's going to do some special things for this team," Petersen said.
Selby was promoted from extended spring training and arrived in town Tuesday. His first assignment - start the second game against the team with the best record in the SAL.
"I tried not to think about any of that," Selby said. "Anytime I go out there I just want to compete and give my team a chance to win."
Mission accomplished. The right-hander, who was drafted in the 16th round out of Division III Randolph-Macon, threw four innings, allowed only one run on two hits, didn't walk anyone and recorded five strikeouts. All against a lineup he knew nothing about.
"I relied on my catcher and (Zac) Susi called a great game," Selby said. "My curve was working well early and later I was using sliders and changeups for strikes. As the game went on, I began to read the swings better."
After the Hoppers staked him to a 3-0 lead, Selby said it was important to put up a zero in the top of the third inning, which he did.
"You've got to bear down and keep the momentum," he said.
Selby's day was done after the fourth inning, so he didn't qualify for the victory. Cam Alldred earned that with a terrific two innings of relief work, retiring all six hitters he faced and striking out three. Yerry De Los Santos picked up the save with a shutout inning in the seventh.
The game was a good bounce-back after the opener. With the Hoppers trailing 1-0 in the top of the fifth with two outs and runners on second and third, Osvaldo Bido threw a pitch on a 1-2 count to Doran Turchin that looked like strike three. Plate umpire Mitchell Leikam called it ball two, so the inning continued instead of being over.
Turchin then followed with a single that scored two runs to make it 3-0. Perez, who had protested the call initially, came out of the dugout, clapped his hands sharply and went nose-to-nose with Leikam, who promptly ejected him. Perez finished by using his shoes to smooth dirt to cover home plate. It was the first ejection of the season for the manager with a normally calm demeanor.
"Sometimes it's not worth it to waste your energy," he said, "but sometimes you've got to get your point across. You've always got to fight for your players and show them you have their backs."
The importance of that one pitch was underscored when Brett Kinneman slugged a two-run homer in the bottom of the fifth. Instead of putting the Hoppers ahead 2-1, it cut Delmarva's lead to 3-2. where the score stayed.
NOTES: Nick Economos will be the starter in Thursday's game … Delmarva is 28-8, with half its losses coming at the hands of the Hoppers … Relievers Logan Stoelke and Samuel Reyes were recently sent to Bradenton, making four members of the Hoppers bullpen to be promoted within five days … Right-handers Will Gardner and Cristofer Melendez joined the team.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.