We are the champions. Well, the Hops are.
Hillsboro defeated the Tri-City Dust Devils 3-1 in Game 5 of the NWL Championship Series Wednesday night, Sept. 11, at Gesa Stadium in Pasco, WA. In the process, the franchise won its third league championship since arriving in Hillsboro more than six years ago.
"I'm shocked," said Hops owner Mike McMurray with his wife Laura after the game. "Honestly, after last night I was afraid we didn't have the momentum, but obviously the team has a lot of grit, and the managers and coaches know how to push these kids' buttons because they came out prepared."
Despite falling behind 1-0 in the first inning, Hillsboro pitchers Conor Grammes, Ryne Nelson, Justin Garcia and Eduardo Herrera dazzled on the mound, allowing just that opening run on a total of six hits, while striking out 15 and walking three. Nelson got the win, allowing just two hits in three innings of relief, while striking out six Dust Devil batters in the process.
"This team never gives up and we had really good pitching going today," first baseman Andy Yerzy said. "We knew Grammes and Nellie were going to give us six strong, and it was just a matter of the offense getting going. And it did."
After Tri-City plated the game's initial run on a Kelvin Melean RBI single in the first, the Hops battled back to tie the game in the third.
Ricky Martinez reached first after being hit by a pitch to lead off, then went to third on an errant pickoff attempt that went to the wall down the first base line. Then, after Liover Peguero grounded out to first, centerfielder Corbin Carroll doubled down the left field line, scoring Martinez and tying the game 1-1.
An inning later Hillsboro grabbed its first lead of the night when Lyle Lin reached on a two-out double to left center, and later scored when Ryan January lined a single to right field and the catcher narrowly beat the throw to the plate to put the Hops ahead 2-1.
From there Nelson went to work, repeatedly mowing down Tri-City batters with a nice combination of a mid-90's fastball and off-speed pitches hovering just beneath 80. After Nelson it was Garcia, and in the ninth, Herrera.
"I was a little nervous coming into today because Tri-City is a really good team, but our pitchers set the tone," Hops Vice President and General Manager K.L. Wombacher said. "Grammes was great, Ryne Nelson was sensational as usual, and we got the big hits tonight. It was awesome."
One of those big hits came in the seventh. Leading 2-1 and desperate for an insurance run or two, Jorge Barrosa reached on an infield single, went to second on a Dan Dallas balk, then after Carroll was hit by a pitch both advanced a base thanks to a passed ball before Tristan English's bloop single allowed Barrosa to score, putting the Hops ahead 3-1.
Garcia did his part from there, holding the Dust Devils hitless in both the seventh and eighth innings, then Herrera finished the North Division champions and sent the Tri-City faithful home with their tails between their legs, putting the home team down in order, including a final-out strike out that ignited a raucous celebration on the mound, and later spilled over to home plate as the Hops received their trophy as NWL champs.
"It's been five or 10 years since I've been part of a championship like this," Yerzy said. "This has been the best team chemistry that I've been a part of in terms of personalities clicking together, so it was awesome that we all got to play for a championship, and win it."
The Hops' third Northwest League title came two days shy of the fourth year anniversary of their last --- which they also won at Gesa Stadium.
It capped a remarkable season that saw Hillsboro's pitching staff record some historic numbers, including an opponent's batting average of .205 against the Hops, the lowest in recent NWL history and a whopping .017 better than the next-closest club, the 2005 Vancouver Canadians.
Wombacher, who too was all smiles on the field after the game, spoke to both the players and coaches' work throughout the season as a special effort worthy of a championship.
"All of these guys have worked hard all season, and they really wanted this."
To be clear, and what makes this team's effort and ultimately their title so impressive, is that this was not the team they started with. Gone and off to greener pastures are all-stars Kristian Robinson, who hit .319 with nine home runs in 44 games; Steven Leyton who hit .264 with four home runs in 41 games; and Luis Frias who was virtually unhittable during his time in Hillsboro, leaving for Kane County with a 1.99 ERA with 72 strike outs in nearly 50 innings of action. Also gone midseason was catcher Nick Dalesandro, along with pitchers Michel Gelabert and Yaramil Hiraldo, among others. So while key contributors to what ended in a championship run, it was incumbent upon newcomers like Tristan English, Corban Carroll, and pitcher Tyler Holton to pick up where their departed brethren left-off — and they did so with flying colors.
That's not to say the team was devoid of talent. In fact, the Arizona Diamondbacks (Hillsboro's parent club) had eight of the first 93 picks in the 2019 Major League Baseball draft and seven of those eight picks played for the Hops, three of which — Carroll (16th overall), Nelson (56th), and English (93rd), played key roles in Hillsboro's Game 5 win.
And how did the McMurray's — considering everything involved — compare this title to their two previous championships in Hillsboro?
"They all feel different, but they're all so fun," Mike McMurray said. "This was a very different group of guys. They we're so young, but they worked so hard and they earned it."
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