GREENSBORO—Spring heralds change. Welcome Greensboro, a Pittsburgh Pirates town. After more than a decade of affiliation with the Miami Marlins, the tectonic movements of MLB-minor league organizational affiliation have shifted the picture of the South Atlantic League.
The Gate City in 2019, just call it Pittsburgh South. Around baseball cities of the Single-A level “Sally” League, the look up the stairs to the majors has changed.
For instance, the West Virginia Power (where Pittsburgh’s single-A crop last season was grown) are now a Seattle Mariners club. Greensboro’s erstwhile Marlins have gone to the cornfields, to the great plains out west.
Historic Ashford University Field (built 1937) will be home in 2019 to familiar Grasshoppers faces now playing as the Marlins’ single-A affiliate in Clinton, Iowa: the Clinton LumberKings of the Midwest League have a club history dating back to 1957, and since then have been an affiliate nursery for the Dodgers, Giants, Cubs, Pirates, White Sox, Brewers, Tigers and more than a handful other teams before the Marlins.
Meanwhile, the Grasshoppers have a new team of future PNC Park dynamos. Manager Miguel Perez has replaced Tom Pratt, who moves to skippering in Florida for the Marlins’ Class-A affiliate Jupiter Hammerheads. While the Hoppers’ front office looks very much the same, the player-coach-manager-trainer contingent now comes of the Bucs organizational ladder, and new stars of the Steel City will be tempered in the crucible at First National Bank Field on Bellemeade Street in Greensboro.
Elsewhere in the South American League, the Charleston RiverDogs still remain a Yankees club, and you can catch a little taste of the Lone Star State in Hickory, North Carolina as the Crawdads represent the future sweet hopes of the Texas Rangers. The Kannapolis Intimidators hold the line for the Chicago White Sox (although the public has been invited to submit bids for a name change).
The new Hoppers are off to a successful debut, taking three of four from the Washington Nationals-affiliated Hagerstown Suns to begin the season. The opening salvo of this year’s campaign was led by Sally League holdovers Lolo Sánchez and Rodolfo Castro, promising prospects who struggled in their first full-season go around, as well as a cast of new characters.
THURSDAY Suns 8, Grasshoppers 9
Opening night was unseasonably warm and the ball was flying in downtown Greensboro. Hoppers starter Steven Jennings struggled, but the bats came from behind multiple times to come away with a win in this slugfest. Jennings, a second-round pick in the 2017 draft, tops out in the low nineties and needs to place his pitches in order to be successful.
Too many leaked over the plate Thursday night as Hagerstown knocked him around for six runs over four-and-two-thirds innings. A leadoff walk in the first led to a stolen base and a throwing error by the catcher, resulting in the first run of the season scoring on a grounder to the shortstop.
Two more scored in the second on consecutive hits by Gilbert Lara, Pablo O’Connor, Jamori Blash (double), and Juan Pascal. Lara hit a titanic two-run shot to straightaway center in the third, and Blash doubled again and scored on a José Sánchez sac fly in the fourth to open up a 6-3 lead for the visitors.
The Hoppers had a brief early lead in the first on a double by Mason Martin and a two-run bomb the other way to left-center by Brett Kinneman and scored their third run in the third on a hit batsman, a single, and a wild pitch.
The home team struck back with a four-spot in the fourth as starter Tomás Alastre and the Suns defense faltered. The two-out rally began with a hit-by-pitch and stolen base by Lolo Sánchez, an error by the shortstop, and a walk. Mason Martin greeted reliever Chandler Day with a single and Kinneman smoked a double to left, scoring two.
The Hoppers took the lead the next inning on a leadoff walk, a double by Rodolfo Castro, an RBI groundout, and an RBI knock by Pat Dorrian. Samuel Reyes came on after Jennings and struck out three in an inning and two-thirds. Cam Alldred and Connor Loeprich contributed shutout frames out of the pen, and Logan Stoelke got the save despite allowing a two-run homer to Gage Canning in the ninth.
FRIDAY Suns 0, Grasshoppers 6
The Hoppers coasted to a win on a cool and misty Friday night, Osvaldo Bido out-dueling 2018 second-round pick Tim Cate. Bido tossed five shutout frames and Cate kept pace until the fifth, when the home team ran away and hid with a four-run frame.
None of the runs were earned as a Chase Lambert single and a pair of two-out throwing errors on the left side of the infield plated the first three runs. Following a base on balls, Ryan Tapani came on in relief with two outs to face Brett Kinneman, who smoked a double into the gap and scored two. Greensboro put it away in the eighth on Pat Dorrian’s mammoth shot over the right-field scoreboard, a double by Rodolfo Castro, and a single by Grant Koch. Joe Jacques and Nicholas Economos tossed two innings apiece in relief.
SATURDAY Suns 6, Grasshoppers 5
The Hoppers looked to be progressing towards another win when starter Alex Manasa left the game following the top of the fifth. Manasa had just allowed a parade of singles, including an RBI knock by eighth man Juan Pascal and a clutch two-out, two-run single by Gage Canning. Still, the home team had the lead. Lolo Sánchez poked a three-run homer onto the berm in left in the second inning following a single by Brett Kinneman and a ringing double by Rodolfo Castro. The Greensboro bats kept the heat on Suns starter Jake Irvin, tacking on a run apiece in the fourth and fifth. Castro smacked another double and scored on Raúl Siri’s sac fly in the fourth and a pair of singles by Fabricio Macías and Kinneman netted another one in the fifth.
Nick Mears was trying to nurse this 5-3 advantage as he entered the eighth inning and his second inning of work. Mears was blowing guys away. But he was losing the strike zone. Mears had two outs in the frame, both courtesy of strikeouts on his 95 mile-per-hour heat. He also had two men on courtesy of walks.
Into this well-worn baseball scenario stepped Gilbert Lara. He is a post-hype sort of prospect at this point, still young but lacking in buzz among the talking heads. The long and lean Dominican third baseman has huge power, already in evidence this weekend. He also has a mean uppercut. He found one he liked, launching a three-run blast over the right-centerfield fence to give Hagerstown a 6-5 lead.
A stunned home crowd watched as Jhonatan Germán struck out three and earned a two-inning save.
SUNDAY Suns 1, Grasshoppers 2
A brisk getaway day saw Greensboro take the series with some late-inning dramatics. Brad Case was solid for the Hoppers, pitching into the sixth and allowing just one in the fourth. The quick-strike rally consisted of a single by Israel Pineda, a double by Jacob Rhinesmith, and an RBI groundout by Gilbert Lara. Samuel Reyes followed him up with two-and-a-third of shutout ball.
Francys Peguero stifled the home bats for five frames and things looked bleak against Hagerstown’s relief corps until the eighth, when Ángel Guillén walked the leadoff man. Carson Teel came on and was greeted immediately by Lolo Sánchez with a triple scalded down the third-base line. Tie game. A 10th inning single by Raúl Siri knocked in the ghost runner and sent the folks home happy.