Opening night was an adventure for Brady Puckett in the early going, but once the tall right-hander settled in he made things a lot easier for the Hoppers.
Puckett pitched six shutout innings, extracting himself from two bases-loaded jams, to help the Hoppers to a 6-1 victory over the Hickory Crawdads Thursday night at First National Bank Field to open the 2018 season.
"It was a solid night of pitching, hitting and defense," said manager Todd Pratt. "My report (to the Miami Marlins) will be short."
Stymied on offense for the first two innings, the Hoppers broke loose for two runs in the third, three more in the fourth and one in the fifth. Marcos Rivera tripled and singled and scored twice, J.C. Millan had a pair of RBI doubles, Aaron Knapp had an RBI and Micah Brown had two singles, an RBI and scored twice.
Rivera made two sparkling plays at shortstop, going in the hole to his right to throw out one batter and coming in for a bare-handed pickup and throw to nab another. And Brown made a backhand stop of a ball headed down the left field line that saved a likely run-scoring double.
But it could a been an entirely different game if not for Puckett, who admitted he was nervous about pitching the opening game.
He gave up a leadoff single, got one out, then walked a batter and gave up an infield hit that Brown saved from being extra bases. That still left the bases loaded with one out. But Puckett got Melvin Novoa to hit a grounder right back to the mound for a pitcher-to-catcher-to-first base double play to end the inning.
"I almost turned to throw to second base," Puckett said, "but I heard Mike (Hernandez, the catcher) say to throw to him so I went home and we got the double play. That was a two-seam fastball and I was just looking to get a ground ball anywhere.
"After I got back to the dugout I took a deep breath. It looked like things were falling our way, but it wasn't going to be easy."
Sure enough, Puckett found himself in another bases-loaded situation in the second inning, this time with two outs. He got Miguel Aparicio to fly out to Jhonny Santos in left field, leaving three more runners.
Puckett stranded single runners in the third and fourth innings and two more in the fifth before retiring the side in order in the sixth. In six innings he allowed seven hits and two walks with four strikeouts while stranding 10 Crawdad runners.
"He did a great job and didn't panic when the game could have been broken open," Pratt said. "I think he got a little stronger as the game went on and more zoned in."
Pitching coach Mark DiFelice said Puckett works both sides of the plate. His two-seam fastball breaks in to right-handed hitters and his cut fastball breaks in on lefties.
Catcher Michael Hernandez said the first inning was the key for Puckett.
"That ground ball double play set the tone for the game," Hernandez said. "I think he was excited at first, but after that inning he caught his groove and it was fun to catch him."
Puckett soaked up the experience.
"This was a whole lot of fun and I had a blast," he said.
After Puckett's stint, Reilly Hovis retired all six batters he faced, striking out three. Manuel Rodriguez surrendered a solo home run in the ninth inning, then had two more runners reach base on an error and an infield single. But Rodriguez struck out the next two hitters to end the game and cap the successful evening.
NOTES: Tyler Kolek, slated to be the №2 starter, was placed on the Disabled List with tendinitis in his pitching arm … He's not expected to be out long-term … Brandon Miller will start in his slot, including Friday night's game, until Kolek returns ... Pitcher Nelson Bautista, who has been with the Hoppers on a couple of occasions, was added to the roster.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.