With the bats coming to life in recent days, the Hickory Crawdads got further reinforcements from a pair of promoted players Tuesday night in defeating the Asheville Tourists 6-3 in a South Atlantic League series opener at L.P. Frans Stadium.
Combined with a victory two days prior against the Rome (Georgia) Braves, it was the first back-to-back wins for Hickory (14-24) in exactly a month. The Crawdads' win against the Braves snapped a 13-game losing streak and the recent surge in offense has been the largest factor.
“We've had some good pitching,” said Crawdads manager Chad Comer. “And the bats started to come alive a little bit. We've been playing pretty good defense. So, I think when you start to do all three of those things together, you start to kind of take steps in the right direction as far as the win-loss column goes.”
The turnabout came after Hickory had scored 29 runs over the first 12 games of the losing streak. Over the last three games, the team has scored 20. Comer said that, while the effort by the players hasn’t wavered during the dry stretch, he felt individual members were trying to take on too much responsibility.
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“I think whenever you go through a little rut like that,” explained Comer, “where maybe a guy or two start to get a little cold and he's not on at the time. And then maybe another guy puts some more pressure on himself than he should have to, it kind of becomes contagious and almost everybody starts pressing in those situations.”
Promoted to Hickory from Low-A Down East prior to the game were first baseman/outfielder Abimelec Ortiz, the team’s leading power hitter, and catcher Tucker Mitchell, the Wood Ducks’ leading hitter (.338). Both made an impact in their first game.
Asheville (18-20) opened the scoring in the first inning, when Zach Dezenzo caught an 0-2 hanging slider from starter Winston Santos and sent it over the fence in left.
An error and the legs of Daniel Mateo got Hickory even in the bottom half. Mateo reached on Tim Borden’s miscue at second base to start inning, then stole second and third. Max Acosta later walked, and the pair quickly attempted a double steal. Acosta was thrown out at second, but Mateo scored on the play to even the score.
In the fourth, Josh Hatcher and Mitchell each doubled to start the inning. The left-handed hitting Ortiz introduced himself to the 1,698 fans on hand by muscling up a Joey Mancini (1-1) curveball near the end of the bat and sending it down the left-field line for a three-run homer. The drive was his eighth overall this season, the first with Hickory.
“We added a couple of new guys to the roster this week,” Comer said. “And obviously some fresh swings and fresh at-bats to get in there and kind of plug them in and play. To have some success the first time was really big for us.”
The Crawdads made it 6-1 with two more runs in the fifth. Alejandro Osuna was hit by a pitch, then came all the way around to score when Acosta followed with a double into the right-field corner. After a wild pitch, Mitchell provided the second run with a sacrifice fly.
Santos (2-3) supported his teammates with a strong outing in his second start since his return from the injured list. The Texas Rangers’ No. 30 prospect (MLB.com) pitched into the sixth inning and allowed three runs on five runs and three walks with six strikeouts. The slider that betrayed him in the opening inning proved to be his most effective pitch of the night, with the Tourists hitters flailing away at the pitch.
It was also the slider that got him out of trouble in the fifth. After walking a pair of hitters with one out, a mound visit gave Santos a quick breather after which he struck out both Tommy Sacco and Collin Price to end the inning — the final four pitches all sliders.
“Winston’s been really good lately,” Comer said. “The slider’s gotten better. He continues to develop it, but obviously he's still got that good fastball and changeup. So, overall, the three-pitch mix, it was it fun to see tonight.”
Santos got help defensively on a pair of strong throws from catcher Cooper Johnson to nab runners stealing. The first resulted in a double play after a strikeout in the first. Hickory also turned a double play in the second.
Asheville finally scored a pair of runs to chase Santos in the sixth. With one out, Dezenzo walked before Tim Borden and Ryan Wrobleski recorded back-to-back RBI doubles. Santos was able to strike out Ryan Clifford for the second out, then gave way to Seth Clark, who fanned Miguel Palma.
The Tourists continued to threaten in the late innings. A pair of walks in the seventh brought Dezenzo to the plate as the tying run. However, new pitcher Brandon Webb battled to a full count before getting Dezenzo to fly out to center. Asheville also put a runner at third with two outs in the eighth before Webb struck out Palma.
Matt Broksy worked around an error in the ninth for his first save as a pro.
The teams returned to action Wednesday morning for Game 2 of the six-game series before facing off again Thursday at 7 p.m.
Note: Along with Ortiz and Mitchell, the Crawdads also received relief pitcher Jackson Kelley from the Wood Ducks. Going to Down East from Hickory are catcher Konner Piotto, infielder Yenci Pena, and pitchers Wyatt Sparks and Jacob Maton.