You want pitching? The Hoppers delivered a lot of that Friday night.
Clutch hitting? They were able to provide some against the best pitcher in the South Atlantic League.
Drama? Well, you had to see the bottom of the ninth inning when the Hoppers scored against a gimmick defense to beat a tough Augusta team 4-3.
Let's start with the drama.
With the game tied 3-3, Grant Koch drew a leadoff walk from left-handed relief pitcher Bryce Tucker. Hoppers manager Miguel Perez then inserted the fast Ji-Hwan Bae to pinch run for Koch. The GreenJackets helped out with a passed ball and wild pitch on consecutive pitches to put Bae on third base with no outs.
That's when things got weird. Augusta manager Carlos Valderrama pulled Jose Layer from center field to be a fifth infielder, stationing him just to the left of second base. All five players were pulled in on the infield grass, leaving very little room for the ball to get through. The strategy worked when Kyle Mottice grounded out and Bae had to hold at third base.
Connor Kaiser came up, looked over the oddball defense and hit the ball sharply, cracking his bat, to Layer. Bae was off with the contact and Layer made a good throw home but Bae's slide eluded the tag to score the winning run. Officially, it was scored as a fielder's choice and an RBI for Kaiser.
"I've never seen five infielders before," Kaiser said. "I was trying to get a good pitch and put a good swing on it. He (Tucker) hadn't thrown much of anything but fastballs, so I waited for one and made sure I was on time."
Bae, through interpreter Hoon Na, said the play was quick and close.
"I was able to slide to the outside of the catcher, not under the tag," Bae said. "I saw the umpire spread his arms and I knew I was safe."
Bae, the Hoppers' top hitter at .304 and leader with 27 stolen bases, had sat on the bench for over three hours. But Perez talked to him in the top of the ninth inning and told him to be ready if Koch got on base. Bae said he stretched his legs before he went in, then loosened up when he moved to second base and then on to third.
Perez said he was expecting the unusual defense and had even contemplated using it himself, but opted not to.
"As a hitter, you've got to look to make hard contact," he said. "If you try to manipulate the bat to get it through a hole, you're in trouble. You have to put the barrel on it."
On paper, the game was not a good matchup for the Hoppers. They were facing Augusta left-hander Seth Corry, who had posted an 8-0 record with a 0.65 ERA since the SAL all-star game. Corry had dominated them in a game at Augusta on July 18, allowing just one hit in six shutout innings.
In his previous five starts prior to Friday, Corry had pitched 28 consecutive shutout innings. But the Hoppers stopped that streak in the first inning when a two-out double by Jack Herman scored Mottice.
"We put up that run in the first and then we were grinding against him after that," said hitting coach Chris Petersen. "I love that we rose to the challenge. We focused on getting good pitches to hit."
Corry wasn't at his best, but kept extracting himself from trouble. The trouble was, he ran up his pitch count. He put nine runners on base by allowing four hits, walking three and hitting two batters. In the fifth inning, Mottice was hit by a pitch, stole second and scored on Kaiser's double. Corry's night was done after reaching 90 pitches and being unable to record an out in the fifth.
Kaiser's RBI cut the lead to 3-2 and the Hoppers tied it in the seventh. Mottice singled, stole his second base of the night and eventually came around to score on a wild pitch. All that set up the dramatic ninth inning.
Almost overshadowed was the effort of the Hoppers' pitchers. Pitching coach Stan Kyles used "resilient" as the word to describe their evening. Starter Steven Jennings went the first five innings, Cristofer Melendez retired nine of 10 batters he faced, allowing only a walk in his three innings, and Yerry De Los Santos picked up a win despite a shaky ninth inning.
After opening with two shutout innings, Jennings had a bad third inning, which started with two quick outs. Then he walked a batter, made a throwing error that allowed the next hitter to reach base, and served up a three-run homer to Francisco Tostada.
"The home run didn't bother me as much as the error I made," Jennings said. "At that point, I just wanted to keep the damage to a minimum."
What was important was that Jennings returned and put up zeroes in the fourth and fifth innings.
"After the homer he could have folded his tent," Kyles said. "But he held firm and gave us a chance to get back in the game."
Melendez had not pitched well at home this season, posting an ERA over 8.00 coming into Friday.
"We talked about that," Kyles said. "He tries to do too much in front of these fans. I told him he had to stay business-like. He had very good stuff and he was a pitcher tonight."
De Los Santos, in contrast, had been almost untouchable at home, allowing only one unearned run in 22 1/3 innings over 12 games. But he uncharacteristically walked two batters and uncorked a wild pitch, leaving him with runners on second and third with just one out. Then he buckled down and got a groundout and strikeout to end the ninth inning.
Augusta, fighting for the second-half title in the South Division, has won six of nine games against the Hoppers.
"They have good pitching and have played good baseball against us," Perez said. "This game is a start to a good finish for us the rest of the series."
Perhaps the night's craziness was best summed up by Petersen's response when asked if he thought Bae beat the throw or slid under the tag.
"I don't know and I don't really care," he said. "We competed until the last out, found a way to win and that was what we needed."
The series continues Saturday with Colin Selby (6-3) starting for the Hoppers.
NOTES: Mottice scored three of the Hoppers' four runs … His two stolen bases gave him 18 for the season … Luke Mangieri had a pair of singles off Corry … The Hoppers struck out 11 times against three Augusta pitchers but drew seven walks.