Hops battling for top spot
Hillsboro can lock up first place in NWL's South Division
Hops win eight of their last 10 games to remain in contention for a playoff berth
Where did these guys come from?
Thirty-eight games into their inaugural season in Hillsboro, the Hops were a dismal 11-27, far and away the worst of the Northwest Leagues eight teams save for Eugene, which was two games up.
But the Hops have turned the corner in the second half of the season, reaching their peak in the latter half of August. In a 10-game run that concluded on Monday, Hillsboro went 8-2 and rattled off a string of seven consecutive wins, easily its best streak of the season.
Thanks in part to the primo stint, these Hops are battling for a playoff spot. After a challenging rain-delayed 4-3 loss to Boise at Hillsboro Ballpark on Monday, Hillsboro sat at 19-13 in the second-half standings, tied with the Hawks and Salem-Keizer for the South Division lead.
The team appeared primed to make it nine out of 10 on Monday after jumping out to a 3-0 lead through three innings. But the heavens opened not all that long after first pitch, and the game was halted for an hour after completion of the third clearing many of the 3,556 in attendance out of the park.
After play resumed, Boise found its stride, eventually putting up three runs in the seventh to garner a comeback victory and snatch a share of the first-place standings.
The biggest thing is momentum, Hops first baseman George Roberts said after the game. Obviously, we had a lot of momentum. They came back and kind of crushed us a little bit.
They came back and it favored them later in the game. Its all about who stays out in front, especially like in the sixth, seventh and eighth, you want to stay ahead. We lost the lead and it was tough to come back.
Early on, though, the Hops were cruising. In the first, Roberts staked the home team to a 1-0 lead with an RBI single into center field, scoring Taylor Ratliff. Two innings later, the Hops tripled their lead on another RBI single by Roberts and a sliding triple by Daniel Palka, whose hit just eluded the outstretched glove of Hawks center fielder Kevin Encarnacion.
Meanwhile, Austin Platt was rock-solid as the Hillsboro starter, giving up just two hits in his three innings. But after sitting that long in the rain delay, he did not return to the field, instead yielding to Yoimer Camacho, who promptly surrendered a towering home run to right field to Encarnacion, the first batter he faced.
I really wanted to go back out for some more, but I sat too long, Platt said. It was a wise decision on (Hops pitching coach Doug Drabeks) part about just letting me sit and get a few more days rest and go back at it again. I would have liked to, but I know it was a smart decision to do it.
The game then stayed pretty quiet until the seventh, when Camacho put fellow reliever Jose Jose in a tight spot by loading the bases on two walks and a hit batter with one out. Jose gave up an RBI single to Shawon Dunston Jr., whose infield chopper bounced so high in the air that no Hop could make a play on it, drawing the Hawks within a run.
Boise also fighting for the divisions second playoff berth then completed its comeback in the next at-bat. Danny Lockhart smacked the ball right at Palka, who fielded it cleanly at first base. But instead of tagging his bag for the second out, he tried for the force out at second. Unfortunately, his throw was high, allowing two Hawks to come home.
Thats baseball, you know. The weather obviously was pretty bad, Roberts said. (The rain started up again 15 minutes after the game resumed, and nothing less than a light mist fell for the rest of the contest.)
But you gotta play through it. They were playing in it as well. We were up and I thought we were set, but they battled back and just kept fighting.
Ryan Gebhardt gave the home team a little life with two outs in the ninth when he legged out an infield single, reaching base with a head-first slide. But Ratliff struck out to end the game, as well as the Hops hopes of putting some distance between themselves and the Hawks with six games to play.
After an off day on Tuesday, the team began its final run of home games on Wednesday and Thursday against Eugene. (Results were not available at press time.) The series and home finale is slated for tonight and should the Hops have fared well in the first two games against the Emeralds it could set the squad up for its final playoffs push, a three-game series at Boise from Saturday through Monday.
Among the highlights over the past week (through Tuesday):
The Hops picked up their fifth win in a row with a 2-1 road victory against the Emeralds last Wednesday. Hillsboro got all the offense it needed in the eighth when, with two outs, Roberts smacked a two-run home run over the right field fence. The blast scored Yogey Perez-Ramos, who had also reached base with a two-out single. The team gave a run back in the eighth, but relief pitcher J.R. Bradley got a force out at home plate and a groundout to get out of the inning with the lead intact. Platt was stellar on the mound, giving up just two hits and three walks while striking out three in seven innings.
The following day, Hillsboro cruised to a 5-0 win in Eugene, manufacturing its tallies in the second, fourth and ninth innings despite getting just five hits in the game. Palka provided the big bat with a solo home run in the second and a sacrifice fly in the ninth that plated Perez-Ramos. The opportunistic Hops also scored on a bases-loaded walk in the fourth, a sac fly by Gebhardt in the fourth, and a wild pitch in the ninth. Ross Gerdeman went the distance on the mound to pick up his second win of the year. He gave up seven hits and fanned eight in nine innings of work.
Last Friday, the Hops sealed their sweep of Eugene by coming from behind in the eighth stanza of a 3-2 ballgame. Trailing 2-1, Hillsboro pulled even on a bases-loaded walk by Palka, and the winning run came on a fielding error that allowed Jordan Parr to scamper home. Perez-Ramos also had an RBI on a sac fly in the third. Ryan Doran yield 10 hits but just two runs in the game. He also struck out seven. In the ninth, Blayne Weller struck out the final two Emeralds he faced to wrap up the win.
After dropping a 2-1 decision to Boise on Saturday to open the seasons final homestand, the Hops reclaimed a one-game lead in the division standings in dramatic fashion, getting a 10th-inning RBI single by Perez-Ramos to score Parr in a 6-5 win on Sunday. Impressively, it was the fourth time this year that Perez-Ramos has provided a walkoff hit in extra innings. Second baseman Denver Chavez added three RBIs in the contest, all on a double in the second. Starter Kyle Schepel started the game on shaky ground, allowing four runs on five hits and seven walks in 3 2/3 innings, but Chase Stevens and Bradley combined to give up just one more the rest of the way.
Runners in scoring position have been great for us lately, Roberts observed. Getting key hits in crucial parts of the game has been big for us. It seems like everybodys been contributing to it, so thats whats huge.
Approaching the end of the regular season, every contest is a must-win for Hillsboro, which needs to finish atop the division second-half standings to claim a playoff berth. If Salem-Keizer, which won the first half, were to win the second half or tie with the Hops for first, Boise would take the second-half spot thanks to a better overall record than Hillsboro. And of course, if the Hawks finish out front for the second half, they will claim the berth.
That potentially sets up some intrigue and several pressure-packed final games in Idaho for both teams.
Platt was a member of the squad last year when it made the playoffs as the Yakima Bears. He, for one, likes his teams chances.
We didnt win it, but last year we made it, and that was a lot of fun, Platt said. This year, Im pretty sure were going to make it again, and I think we got the team to win it.
Note: Should the Hops win the South Division second-half standings and thereby secure a league playoff berth, they would immediately start a best-of-three playoff series against Salem-Keizer on Tuesday. After a travel day next Friday, the North and South first-round winners will meet in the league championship best-of-three series starting on Sept. 7.