Will Gardner was very nearly perfect Wednesday night.
The right-hander was called on for the save against Rome and responded by striking out the side to nail down a 6-4 Hoppers win. He threw 10 pitches, and nine of them were strikes.
"He almost got an "immaculate inning,"' said pitching coach Stan Kyles.
Gardner was chomping at the bit to get back on the mound. Just three days ago, he was tagged for six runs in 1 1/3 innings at Hickory and wound up taking the loss.
"I was so excited to get back out there," Gardner said. "That's one of the best things about baseball - you don't have to wait long.
"Stan has a saying that you're never as good as you think you were and you're never as bad as you think you were. You take the positives and negatives from every outing."
It's hard to imagine any negatives from this one. Gardner struck out the first two batters on six pitches, getting each one on a breaking ball for a called third strike. His first pitch to Carlos Paraguete was a shade outside for a ball, then the next three were strikes, the third one swinging to end the game.
Kyles said one minor adjustment made all the difference.
"One thing we talked about was he was too stiff in his delivery," Kyles said. "I suggested he use his hands to sync himself up. He tried it in his throwing program and it felt good. When he's confident, his execution is a lot better. It's good to see him bounce back. He's been resilient all year."
It was a good recovery for the Hoppers. Rome came back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the game in the seventh inning and go ahead 4-3 in the eighth.
But the Hoppers wasted no time in the bottom of the eighth. Jonah Davis led off with a high pop fly that fell in for a double near the left field line, ticking off the fielder's glove. Jack Herman laid down a sacrifice bunt that was fielded by the pitcher, but Davis beat the toss to third base. That put runners at the corners with no one out.
Ji-Hwan Bae took three balls, then ripped a line drive over the center fielder's head that rolled to the fence. Both runners scored and Bae breezed in with a triple. Fabricio Macias followed with a single to drive him in to make it 6-4.
Bae, with help from interpreter Hoon Na, said he got a fastball over the middle of the plate on the 3-0 count.
"I was trying to hit a fly ball and the result was perfect," he said.
On the first pitch, Bae squared around to bunt but took the pitch for a ball, creating some uncertainty about what he might do.
"In a 3-0 situation, they probably thought he was going to take the pitch," said hitting coach Chris Petersen. "So it was going to be one of the best pitches he would see, probably in the middle of the plate."
Bae went into third base standing up and appeared willing to try for an inside-the-park home run, but put on the brakes.
"I thought about it a little bit," he said, "but Miggy (manager Miguel Perez) held up the stop sign."
Perez explained that with no outs and Macias coming up next, there was no reason to take a risk.
Bae and Macias split the Hoppers' six RBIs. Bae picked up his first one on a single that sneaked through the infield to score Davis in the third inning. With the Rome infield pulled in, Macias followed by lacing a single through the middle to score two more runs.
"Macias has been very consistent," Perez said. "He has almost 80 RBIs (77 to be exact) and nearly 20 stolen bases (18 now) and his average has been around .280. He goes about his business very professionally and very quietly in preparing for a game."
The win raised the Hoppers' overall record to 77-56. Hickory won Wednesday to lift its mark to 80-50. The Crawdads lead Greensboro by 4 1/2 games with five remaining, so the elimination number for the Hoppers is one (either a Hickory win or a Hoppers loss).
The Hoppers wrap up their home season Thursday night with Alex Manasa on the mound for his final start of the year.
NOTES: Almost overshadowed by the comeback was the fine performance by starter Winston Nicacio, who allowed just one run on five hits in six innings … He gave up the run in the first inning, then put up five zeroes … Gardner's save was his fourth of the year … He was a closer in college at Carson-Newman … Bae, who has played in 83 games, now has three triples and 35 RBIs … He raised his average to .324 and has hit safely in 10 of his last 11 games.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.