Hillsboro wins four of its last five, but still finishes one game behind Salem-Keizer for a playoff berth

For the Hillsboro Hops, achieving their goal of qualifying for the Northwest League playoffs was a matter of close but not COURTESY PHOTO: CRAIG MITCHELLDYER/HILLSBORO HOPS - Hillsboro Hops players and fans watch a pre-game fireworks display before the team's home finale against Eugene last Friday night. The Hops lost to the Emeralds, 4-3.

Three one-run losses over the final seven games of the season — including a 4-3 defeat to Eugene in last Friday’s home finale in front of 4,710 at Hillsboro Ballpark — made keeping pace at the top of the South Division a tough task. Still, the conclusion of the team’s first year in Oregon was more sweet than bitter, as the Hops were greatly improved in the second half of league play, giving fans plenty to cheer about after a rough first half of the season.

“It’s been awesome playing here, that’s for sure. Brand new field, brand new stadium ... I think we averaged almost 4,000 people a night,” said Ryan Gebhardt, who had two hits in last Friday’s game. “Even though we did pretty bad in the first half, everybody came out here and supported us and watched us. We turned around the second half. It’s been awesome playing here. We all got real lucky being able to come here.”by: COURTESY PHOTO: CRAIG MITCHELLDYER/HILLSBORO HOPS - Hillsboro Hops centerfielder Taylor Ratliff gets a face full of dirt as he slides safely into home plate during the team's home finale last Friday against the Eugene Emeralds.

After wrapping up the season with a 10-6 victory at Boise on Labor Day, Hillsboro finished a game behind Salem-Keizer in the South’s second-half standings, posting the second-best mark in both the division and the Northwest League. The Hops ended the season on a three-game win streak to lift their second-half record to 23-15 (.605) and their overall mark to 34-42 (.447).

“It’s a completely different team, the beginning of the season ’til now,” Hops catcher Elvin Soto said after last Friday’s loss to the Emeralds. “Guys are working a lot harder and it shows.”

Needing to finish first in the South Division second-half standings to secure a playoff berth, Hillsboro found itself in a three-way battle down the stretch for division supremacy with Salem-Keizer and Boise.

Of the three teams, the Hops faced the toughest path to the playoffs. The Volcanoes were already assured a berth by virtue of winning the season’s first half. The Hawks could advance by winning the South second-half or finishing with a better overall record than Hillsboro. The Hops, meanwhile, needed to win the division outright to qualify, as they would have lost out in any tiebreaking scenario.

In that final home game, Hillsboro spotted Eugene a 4-1 lead through four and a half innings but pulled a run back in the bottom of the fifth when Soto scored on Yogey Perez-Ramos’ groundout. Two innings later, Taylor Ratliff scored on a passed ball, trimming the deficit to one.

The team looked primed for a comeback in the ninth when Denver Chavez, pinch hitting for Gebhardt, knocked a one-out single to right center. But Ratliff grounded into a double play for an anticlimactic end to the evening and the Hops’ first season in Hillsboro.

However, there were plenty of highlights over the season’s final week:

• The Hops kept their playoff hopes alive last Thursday with a 9-2 victory against Eugene. Hillsboro scored four runs in the third inning and three more in the fourth to jump out to a 7-0 advantage. Brian Billigen led a balanced attack by going 3-for-5 with a double and two RBIs. Daniel Palka and Zach Esquerra — who went deep for a solo home run in the sixth — added two hits and two RBIs apiece. Ryan Doran picked up his second win of the season, scattering seven hits, two runs and a walk in 6 2/3 innings while striking out seven. Johnny Shuttlesworth and J.R. Bradley combined for no hits, just one walk and four strikeouts the rest of the way.

• In Saturday’s 5-0 win at Boise, Kyle Schepel recorded perhaps the best outing by a Hops pitcher this year. He threw a no-hit shutout and was just a walk and an error away from a perfect game. With that effort going on the mound, his teammates came through with more than enough offense, starting with two tallies in the second inning and another in the third. Randy McCurry and Yosbel Gutierrez led the team with two hits apiece, and McCurry added an RBI while Gutierrez scored a run. Palka and Billigen added an RBI each.

• The following day, the Hops were prosperous at the plate, piling up 18 hits in a 14-3 beatdown of the Hawks. Hillsboro struck early and often, dashing to an 8-3 lead after three innings. Esquerra led the barrage with a 3-for-5 effort, two runs and five RBIs. All three of his hits were for extra bases: a double and two home run bombs — a two run shot in the first and a solo trip in the third. George Roberts and Gebhardt were also particularly productive. Roberts batted 2-for-6 with three RBIs and two runs scored, while Gebhardt went 3-for-5 with an RBI and two runs. Austin Platt yielded four hits, three runs and three walks in six innings as the Hillsboro starter. Patrick Smith pitched a hitless seventh and Chase Stevens gave up just one hit while fanning four in the final two stanzas.

• In Monday’s season finale, Hillsboro scored at least one run in six of the nine innings and held off Boise in a 10-6 victoy. Roberts went 2-for-5 and did his best Esquerra impression by hitting two homers — a solo blast in the first and a three-run bomb two innings later. Palka and Billigen added three hits and two runs each. Billigen also notched two RBIs, and Chavez added two hits and two RBIs. On the mound, Ross Gerdeman gave up six hits, two runs and two walks while striking out three in six innings. Yoimer Camacho and Johnny Shuttlesworth held the Hawks scoreless over the final 2 1/3 innings.

In all, it was a good note to end on until next June.

“It’s been a great experience,” said Soto, who plans to participate in a month of instructional ball in Arizona that starts in the middle of the month. “It’s quite the summer we’ve had. The fans here are great, the players are awesome, the coaches are terrific. It’s just been a prestigious year for me. I can’t ask for anything better.”

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