The line will show that Hickory left-hander Sal Mendez had a rough seventh inning, and certainly he contributed to his demise on the mound. However, a couple of unlucky breaks did him in, and in turn it proved to be the difference in a 4-3 loss to the Greensboro Grasshoppers Sunday afternoon at First National Bank Field.
Hickory took a 3-1 lead into the seventh-inning stretch and after Sal Mendez dominated Greensboro in the sixth, the Grasshoppers got their revenge when they sent eight to the plate to score the decisive three runs.
JC Millan started the inning with a solidly lined single to right. With the middle infielders playing at double play depth, Micah Brown hit a medium-speed grounder to the hole at second. Kole Enright from his second base position ranged far to his left, made a diving stop of the ball, but from the seated position he wasn’t able to get enough on the throw to first for the out.
Michael Hernandez then line a shot through the box – I thought it might have hit Mendez – and zoomed into center to score Millan. Zach Sullivan’s sacrifice put runners at second and third before Mendez walked Aaron Knapp.
The tying run scored when Sam Castro hit a checked-swing grounder between the mound and first. First baseman Sam Huff charged the ball but he had no play at home for the force. He turned to get the out at first, however no one covered the bag and the bases remained loaded. That proved crucial as the next hitter Isael Soto hit a high chopper that the 6-4 Huff leapt to snag and then step on first for the out.. However, that made it only two outs and Hernandez score the go-ahead and subsequent deciding run.
The Crawdads took a 2-0 lead in the first on Pedro Gonzalez’s two-run blast to right off the scoreboard.
Hickory started Noah Bremer but was pulled after the first with an oblique injury. A.J. Alexy entered in the second and gave up a lone run on a double play grounder in the fourth. Huff’s first homer of the season accounted for the Crawdads other run in the sixth.
After the blast, Hickory had just two more baserunners. Yohel Pozo doubled to start the seventh. From there, Remey Reed, RJ Peace and Tyler Frohwirth combined to retire the next seven straight, which ended with Gonzalez’s check-swing single. Pozo hit the next pitch for a 6-4-3 double play.
The offense is offensive: Just five hits on Sunday, two of those left the yard, and the Crawdads leave First National Bank Field with a .214/.267/.337 slash. Hickory fanned 11 times today and have Ks in over 25% of its at-bats.
I do wonder how different this weekend would have been had the team scored in the first two innings of the opening game of the season. Having the bases loaded twice, the Crawdads came up empty both times and needed a ninth-inning HR by Enright to avoid the shutout. After going 5-for-20 RISP, they only had three opportunities Sunday afternoon and went hitless.
There are a couple of members struggling to make contact. Gonzalez is 4-for-12, but 7 of his 8 outs are Ks. Tyler Ratliff is 0-for-10 with 5 whiffs and Chad Smith is 0-for-7 with 4 Ks. But strikeouts aside, the issue I saw on Thursday and a little this afternoon, is the inability to take advantage of opportunities. When Greensboro starter Brady Puckett got into those opening-inning jams, Hickory went first-pitch hacking and let him off the hook.
This afternoon, speedy Eric Jenkins in the eighth went up 3-0, then swung through three straight pitches. In the ninth after Pedro Gonzalez reached on a checked-swing single, Yohel Pozo went first-pitch hacking and hit into a game-ending double play.
I think this team will hit and do it well and score some runs. But, they need that spark. Unfortunately, guys are trying to force the issue.
AJ’s day: I’m guessing Alexy had planned to pitch today, but not as early as the second inning and perhaps he wasn’t loose, etc.
According the Marlins pitch fx guy, Alexy was around 92 mph with the fastball. He appeared to have trouble spotting the pitch consistently, especially from the stretch. By my count – there was no stringer for Greensboro today, so I kept my own pitch count – Alexy threw just 43 strikes out of 75 pitches in four innings. He missed 10 bats, only one on the fastball (at least it appeared to be a fastball from my vantage point in the pressbox, located in the ionosphere. The curveball seemed to have good bite to it.
Sal Mendez: I’m guessing I like Sal Mendez more than most and it’s because of innings like the sixth that appeal to me. The lefty breaks a bat on a fastball to start the inning. He then gets back-to-back strikeouts on a swing-through change and a curveball for a called third-strike. Then there are those moments like the seventh when weird things happen and he is unable to minimize the damage.
He is able to get outs, but his stuff is such that there is a small margin of error to get outs or to get hit. Crawdads pitching coach Jose Jaimes loves Mendez’ changeup and it is an outstanding pitch when he can keep it down and miss bats. When he misses his spots, he’s very vulnerable.
Defensive gems: Hickory has been almost flawless in the field. Through the first three games, the lone two errors have come of pickoff throws by pitchers. The group covers a lot of ground and, at least to this point, are sure-handed.
Jenkins in left went back and to his left to make a diving catch of a liner off the bat of Millan in the second. SS Yonny Hernandez bailed out catcher Yohel Pozo’s off-line throw on a steal attempt. Hernandez had to cross the bag and avoid the sliding runner, but he managed to make the catch and slap a tag on Sullivan, who was sliding in.