GREENSBORO — There’s still time left in the first half of the South Atlantic League season.
It’s just not enough time for the Greensboro Grasshoppers.
Despite compiling the second-best record in the 14-team Sally League so far, the Hoppers were eliminated from the first-half pennant chase earlier this week. Greensboro was stuck in the same division as the Delmarva Shorebirds, who clinched the Northern Division’s first playoff spot.
Delmarva was a remarkable 46-15 before a meaningless five-game losing streak.
Greensboro held its own, going 4-5 in head-to-head games against the loaded Shorebirds, a team that at one point had eight men on its roster ranked by MLB Pipeline among top 30 prospects in Baltimore’s farm system.
“You always want to be in first place,” Hoppers manager Miguel Pérez said. “You want your players to be rewarded for the hard work they put in. But where we’re at, I never got the feeling in the dugout or the clubhouse that they’re worried about chasing Delmarva. They just go about their business day by day, trying to get better. For me, that’s a great thing. Yes, it would be nice to go to the playoffs. But it doesn’t feel like we’re chasing. And I think that’s why we’re having success, because they’re not paying attention to what anyone else is doing.”
That approach served the Hoppers well in a successful first half, when a whole lot went well.
It started with pitching. Greensboro’s team ERA was among the top three in the league from the get-go, a byproduct of ranking among the top three in fewest walks allowed.
Two Hoppers starters, right-handers Brad Case and Alex Manasa, were named to the All-Star team. And right-hander Osvaldo Bido is a prime candidate to fill an All-Star roster spot vacated when Case was promoted up the minor-league ladder to Bradenton of the Florida State League.
“All of us, although we’re working on a lot of our own things, when it comes down to the game, we’re very focused on getting the job done for the team,” Manasa said. “Obviously, we’ve got a very talented team. So we want to do the best we can out there to put our team in a spot to win.”
Manasa finished the first half 6-1 with a 3.31 ERA. A converted outfielder who has developed a very good, sinking two-seam fastball, Manasa has benefited from keeping the ball down in the strike zone.
“He’s a kid who hasn’t had a whole lot of experience as a pitcher, and I just like the way he has adapted so well to being on the mound,” Hoppers pitching coach Stan Kyles said. “He’s been pitching for just three years now, and you would never know that from the way he gets after it and tries to make pitches. I’ve really been encouraged by the way he tries to follow a game plan but still maintain that natural athleticism.”
Center fielder Lolo Sánchez, first baseman Mason Martin, second baseman Rodolfo Castro and catcher Grant Koch all made the All-Star team as well.
Sánchez has been among the league leaders in batting average and stolen bases all season, while Martin and Castro rank among the league’s top five in home runs and RBIs.
All three turned 20 years old during the current season. Koch, a fifth-round draft pick last year, is 22.
But now the question is: What will the roster look like in the second half?
It’s the minor leagues, and players who succeed eventually get promoted. Will the Pirates keep the young guys together for a whole season? Or will they make adjustments after the All-Star break?
We’ve already seen a fair amount of movement, especially on the pitching staff.
Case (7-1, 2.45 ERA), Nick Economos (4-2, 2.48), Samuel Reyes (1-0, 0.52, 3 saves), and hard-throwers Nick Mears (1-1, 3.09) and Shea Murray (0-0, 2.57) have all been promoted to Bradenton.
“We’ve been getting a lot of calls from the team above us, especially about the pitching staff,” Pérez said. “Which is great, you know? And whoever is coming in is trying to give us what the other guy was giving us. So, no complaints.
“Guys are working hard. We’re going to be good, man. There’s no panic.”