By JEFF MILLS
11:13 PM EDT, September 7, 2012
Ryan Goetz smelled like champagne and sweat, a combination of both dripping from his bushy Fu Manchu mustache onto his dirt-stained uniform.
Goetz was a mess. A happy mess.
“Man, I’m tired,” Goetz said in the moments after the Greensboro Grasshoppers’ on-field celebration of their series-clinching 7-5 victory over the Hagerstown Suns.
Greensboro’s gritty little leadoff hitter went 3-for-4 with three runs scored, helping the Hoppers win the South Atlantic League Northern Division series Friday night before 4,134 fans at raucous NewBridge Bank Park.
The Hoppers won the series 2-0 and advanced to the best-of-5 SAL Championship series for the second year in a row. They’ll open on the road Monday against the winner of Saturday’s decisive Southern Division game between the Asheville Tourists and Rome Braves, who are tied 1-1.
“We want to experience what last year’s team experienced,” said second baseman Austin Barnes, who homered and drove in three runs. “It’s going to be tough games no matter who we play next week. We saw both of them, and they’re both good teams.”
So, too, are these Grasshoppers.
They used six pitchers and clutch hitting to eliminate the Suns. Barnes and Wilfredo Gimenez both hit two-run home runs. Goetz ran the bases with reckless abandon. Brent Keys had three hits and every Hoppers hitter reached base at least once.
When new closer Nick Wittgren struck out Brett Newsome for the last out, it set off a wild celebration on the Hoppers’ home field — something last year’s champions didn’t get to do.
“This is all for the fans. Really,” Goetz said. “We saw what Greensboro’s team did last year and what it meant to the people — how they embraced it. Now they’ve all got behind us. Yeah, we want to do it for ourselves. But we want to do it for the fans, too.”
Hoppers starter Jake Esch retired the first 13 batters he faced, but the Suns rallied for four runs on six singles in the fifth to tie the score. Esch allowed just one hard-hit ball in the inning.
Goetz led off the bottom of the fifth with an infield single and Barnes — who had homered in his last at-bat — laid down a sacrifice bunt. It opened the door for RBI singles from Josh Adams and Matt Smith.
“I’m the type of hitter who has to be able to get a bunt down,” Barnes said. “You do it for the team. That was a situation where I had to bunt (Goetz) over. They had just tied it back up at 4-4, and that was an important run for us to score.
“It’s playoff baseball,” Barnes added. “We realize where we’re at right now, and we want to take full advantage of this opportunity ahead of us. Not a lot of guys get an opportunity at the playoffs. We understand, and we’re playing together really well.”
Billy Burns and Caleb Ramsey had two hits apiece to lead Hagerstown, which had nine hits — all singles.
Brad Mincey, who relieved Esch and got the final out of the fifth inning, picked up the win. Wittgren pitched a perfect ninth for the save. Opposing hitters are 1-for-25 with 14 strikeouts against him since he joined the team Aug. 15.
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