MSU pitcher Jason Hoppe’s brilliant performance against Augustana in the NSIC tournament put him on the map
By Reece Hemmesch
Midway through last season, MSU hurler Jason Hoppe saw his lifelong dreams slowly fading away from him. The then-sophomore was barely getting time out of the bullpen and coming off one his worst outings, a relief effort facing conference-foe Augustana in the sixth inning of a 0-all tie. There were no outs with clear bases when Hoppe took the mound. Three batters later, Augustana was up a run and Hoppe was out of the game. Suddenly he could feel his visions of the future dying. Professional baseball then seemed more like a childhood fantasy than a possible reality.
A couple successful starts came his way towards the end of the season before the Mavericks headed to the NSIC tournament as the no. 1 seed. Two decisive victories came their way early, followed by a heart-breaking loss to rivals St. Cloud State that put SCSU in the driver’s seat to take the tourney. MSU then faced an elimination game in five hours with their top three pitchers already used up. The Mavericks knew it was a lose-go-home situation, but were still quite confident in receiving a bid for regions, so head coach Matt Magers made the determination to give the ball to Hoppe, who saw his chance to prove himself flashing right before his eyes.
Every athlete needs one of these occasions. That recognizable moment, that cliff note in their career where they went from just an average player to one of the elite, an instant where people look back and know: that is where it all began.
He was a little tense but the pre-game jitters faded away as soon as he stepped into the ballpark. From there, Hoppe could only describe his presence as being “locked in” for the rest of the evening.
“I knew right when I arrived that night that it was go-time. I had to throw the team on my back and prove myself on the mound because I only had a few starts at that time,” Hoppe said. “I walked on the field and from there I knew I had to get myself going mentally. I don’t even remember much of the game; I was just so locked in.”
The game would be a beat down, as MSU jumped to a quick 4-1 lead early and rounded out the late innings with six more in the seventh; but just like any other mind-blowing individual feat in the world of sports, the score is not the number that is remembered from this one. For the fans in the stands and the two teams on the field, just one number comes to mind: 17, Hoppe’s strikeout count when the final out was recorded.
Even though he doesn’t remember, Hoppe was on fire. The 6’1’’, 165-pound sophomore was dazzling with exploding fastballs that were put just about anywhere he wanted them to go that night, off speeds that left Vikings hitters baffled in the box, and his go-to pitch, the change-up, which Augie can agree was his finest pitch of the night.
The game didn’t start out like most fairy tale performances begin. Hoppe found himself in trouble early with back-to-back doubles in the first inning and a run already across the plate for Augustana. For Hoppe, nightmares of games past were beginning to flood back.
“I told myself, let’s just try to get on cruise control and get some quick innings,” Hoppe said, whose mental preparations seemed to have worked out, because that is exactly how the rest of the game went.
The first inning brought in Augustana’s lone run of the game and two strikeouts for Hoppe, followed by two more in the second, one-apiece in the third and fourth, and two more in the fifth. Suddenly, six innings had gone by and Hoppe’s K-count sat at 10, great numbers for anyone in the starting role.
With the Mavericks piling on six more in the top of the seventh, Magers decided to stick with Hoppe to not exhaust any more of the bullpen for a possible two-game set the following day.
From there, the hitting for Augie was brought to a close and the strikeouts for Hoppe became a ritual.
He would not allow a base runner in the final three innings, getting two strikeouts and a fly out in the seventh, followed by a foul out and two more to end the inning in the eighth.
“My two previous starts I could not get through the seventh and onto the eighth. Once I got there vs. Augustana, I knew I had to do it,” Hoppe said. “Our pitching was low and I was throwing well. I knew I had to go out there and finish the job.”
“The game was mine.”
Everyone knew Hoppe was ready and able to finish what was left of the game in the ninth, but no one could have expected the wild ending that was about to surface.
His arm was tired to say the least, as his pitch counted peaked over 100, but he knew he couldn’t just stop there, it was time to close; his two off speeds would have to hit the showers early, the ninth would basically be nothing but him and the old no. 1.
“I think I only threw two off speeds in the ninth, it was nothing but fastballs. I was just trying to hit the spots and gas up as hard I could.”
The leadoff batter would go down swinging for the first out and 15th K, the second would follow, no. 16 on the night.
With one batter remaining, Hoppe took everything he had towards pinch hitter Trevor Sandgren. The count sat at 2-2 when he fired his last pitch of the evening, which landed right over the plate with Sandgren’s bat still sitting on his shoulders, a strikeout to end the game with Hoppe putting down the last five batters on strikes and ending with 17 K’s, a historic feat in the young pitcher’s career.
MSU catcher Nolan Johnson could see the zone Hoppe was in early in the game and knew something big would happen with it.
“He was just very focused. He was in control the whole time and he had all three of his pitches working for strikes,” Johnson explained. “I just knew whatever I put down he was going to throw it just like how I asked for it. They didn’t have a chance to hit it and had no idea it was coming.”
Magers knew it too, as he recognized early that Hoppe was hitting his spots with all three of his pitches, a big factor in what Magers called one of the greatest pitching performances he’s ever seen.
“To be able to locate all of your pitches in a hitting count, that was the key,” Magers said. “Some people get that early in their careers, some don’t get it for a while, but that is really what separates the good ones from the great ones.”
For Hoppe, it was cloud nine following the dominating performance, until it was time to do it all again eight days later with MSU fighting in the Central Region tournament. Their was no chance of elimination in this one, but a loss to New Mexico Highlands would have pinned the Mavericks in the exact same position they faced in the conference tournament. Two more wins and a berth to the College World Series was theirs.
“At that point it was like no team could hit me,” Hoppe said. “I felt unstoppable.”
A pretty good evaluation of himself, considering he would go the distance once again in the regional tournament, scattering seven hits and two earned runs while fanning nine as MSU moved on once again with a 6-2 victory.
Hoppe’s number would not get called until 11 days later when the Mavericks faced elimination in their third game of the Division II College World Series. They would need four more victories in their next four games to call themselves national champions and a single loss would have sent them back home to Mankato, meaning no baseball for another seven months. This time, Hoppe could feel the pressure as he began his warm up.
It was there that Maverick graduate assistant Dave Williams helped Hoppe out with a pep talk before the game. Williams was a sports psychology grad student at MSU and was good with helping the players in their mental preparations.
“He told me you can see nervousness in two ways,” Hoppe explained. “You can think you’re scared to go out there, or you can just go out and shove against these guys. That really helped me put things into perspective.”
Whatever he felt in his pregame warm ups slowly melted away, as Hoppe fired another complete-game shut out, with six hits rendered and 10 strikeouts, as MSU moved on to the next step in the CWS.
Hoppe would see no more action in the tournament, as MSU was eliminated two days later at the hands of Delta State, but he ended the season with three complete-game victories in which he only gave up three runs and 36 strikeouts, something that will be always be remembered with MSU’s magical run to the World Series in 2012.
His freshman season, he threw just 10 innings. As a sophomore, he struggled out of the bullpen until his heroics in the conference tournament. Now he’s a junior at MSU and knows he is one of the top guys on one of the best rotations in the NSIC.
If there was any speculation that Hoppe’s three-game, post-season performance was just a fluke, the start of this season has quickly quieted the idea. He currently sits at a 4-1 mark in ’13, firing 41 innings and boasting a 2.20 ERA with 48 strikeouts. His most recent outing took place last weekend with Hoppe’s seventh start of the season against a familiar opponent, Augustana, where his six-inning one-run presentation silenced the Augie hitters once again.
The MSU squad currently sits at a 22-7 record in 2013, mainly due to the dynamic 1-2 punch that Hoppe and senior Harvey Martin have created on the hill. Although Hoppe’s stats lay somewhere in the solid category, Martin sits in the amazing class and is flirting with deadly, giving up just four earned runs in 40 innings pitched, while striking out 58 batters. Considering the bulk of MSU’s season is played in four-game sets with conference opponents, knowing Hoppe and Martin will be out there for two of them is something Magers believes is huge in the success of this team.
“Our goal is to win three out of four in every series we play in.,” Magers said. “Having those guys at the top of the rotation puts you in a pretty good position to get two games every weekend.”
With MSU’s other starter Tyler Ockuly sidelined for the remainder of the season with an arm injury, Hoppe knows that he and Martin will have to pull even more of their own weight if the Mavericks plan on making a return run to Cary, N.C. for the College World Series.
“We talked about it and we know that we have to step it up now. We have high expectations for this season and to finish strong like last year. We all will need to get to the next level to keep the rotation moving.”
With multiple teams making a bid for an NSIC championship and the Mavericks moving onto a tougher region in 2013, the thought of spending a week in Cary at the end of the season must stay exactly that, a thought.
But one thing is for certain, if Hoppe keeps performing better and better with every outing just like last season, those dreams and goals of professional baseball won’t feel too much like a distant imagination anymore.
They will be, in his eyes, an actuality.