Peguero puts Hops one win from NWL Championships Series
Luck had nothing to do with this. It was justice.
Trailing 1-0 entering the bottom half of the eighth inning, despite a combined pitching performance that had allowed just one hit and struck out 13 Salem-Keizer batters, Hillsboro's Liover Peguero flipped the script in the back half of the ninth with a one out, walk-off ground-rule double to push the Hops to a 2-1 win and a 1-0 lead in their three-game playoff series with the Volcanoes for the Northwest League South Division title, and a shot at a NWL championship.
Hillsboro starter Tyler Holton was brilliant — again — on the mound, throwing six innings, allowing just a single hit — a Yorlis Rodriguez fourth inning homer — while striking out 10 and walking none. Nick Snyder picked up where Holton left off, cruising through the final three innings without allowing a hit, while striking out three Volcanoes, setting the table for Peguero's heroic swat to end the game.
With runners on first and second, and one out, the 18-year-old second-year professional who spent the bulk of the season in Missoula of the Pioneer League, hit a laser to left-centerfield that one-hopped over the wall, scoring Tristan English and setting off a raucous celebration that included a mob of players, a bucket full of ice, and a smiling Peguero near the bag at second base.
"I was a little nervous, but my teammates were supporting me a lot and that gave me confidence," Peguero said. "So I focused on my pitch and thought about my teammates and how much we wanted this, and that helped me hit it."
It hadn't been easy to that point, for the shortstop from the Dominican Republic had struck out twice in his initial three at-bats against a formidable Salem-Keizer staff that had allowed just three hits through the game's first three innings. But Peguero was steadfast in his belief, and used that confidence to prevail when the critical moment presented itself.
"I was focused from the first inning," he said. "Even if I strike out in my first three at bats I'm not going to think about it, because you never know what's going to happen. So when that time came, I was ready for that moment and I put the ball in play."
Holton was less interested in talking about his performance, but more so absorbed by the moment and the magnitude of what was truly a great game of baseball.
"It was an incredible game," Holton said. "Their pitchers did a great job, but we felt like we were going to have that one push-through at some point. We didn't know when it was going to happen, but that's what playoff baseball is all about. We had the last punch playing at home, and it was incredible to be a part of it."
And he was a big part of it early. The Diamondbacks' ninth round pick from the 2018 draft, who sat out last season after having Tommy John surgery following a UCL (Ulnar Collateral Ligament) tear on opening day of his final season at Florida State University, dazzled from the get-go, throwing 31 strikes on 36 pitches, without giving up a hit and striking out six in his first three innings of work.
"I felt early on that I was working with a pretty good sized zone," Holton said. "My catcher and I talked about it and we tried to talk to the hitters about that as well. From a pitcher's standpoint you have to take advantage of that."
His only blip came in the fourth when Rodriguez took a 2-0 pitch over the wall in left centerfield, but the lefty gathered himself and struckout four of his next six batters before leaving, trailing 1-0 after six innings.
"It's never easy when you're losing and you're out of the game, but you have to have confidence in yourself and in others to come through at some point, and that's exactly what we did," he said. "You want to be able to do well enough for your team so you're in the lead, but I gave it all I had and he (Rodriguez) got me on that one pitch. He did his job."
Both staffs were lights-out to start. Salem-Keizer starter Kervin Castro pitched two innings of hitless ball before giving way to right-hander Travis Perry who threw the next five innings, allowing just three hits while pitching out of jams in both the sixth and seventh innings; the latter of which, striking out the final two batters of the inning with one out and the tying run on second. Perry was then spelled by Miguel Figueroa, who immediately found himself in a pinch in the eighth.
Corban Carroll led-off the inning, beating out a ground ball to first, then advancing to second on a wild throw on a pick-off attempt that went to the wall down the first base line. Then, after Jesus Marriaga struck out swinging, first baseman Andy Yerzy laced a single into right centerfield to plate Carroll and tie the game 1-1.
In the ninth, after Snyder put the Volcanoes down in order, Jorge Barrosa reached on a fielding error by first baseman Carter Aldrete. Then, after Tristan English reached on a fielder's choice and advanced to second when Ryan January walked, Peguero pushed the count full before tattooing a fastball nearly over the wall in left centerfield, setting-off a celebration and a sense of relief for a couple thousand Hops fans on the edge of their seats.
"Yeah, I knew he was going to throw a fastball because most of the time it's going to be a fastball on a three-and-two count," Peguero said with a smile. "But if he threw something else, I was going to hit that too."
Peguero said that despite trailing for much of the game, he and his teammates never lost faith, and in fact addressed that very thing in the dugout midway through.
"We were talking in the fifth inning about not being comfortable and feeling like something had to happen," he said. "We knew something was going to happen because we're the best team in the league."
That's true based on overall record, but with one more win between them and the NWL championship series, and a best-of-five series there to win it all, the league champion has yet-to-be-determined. Nonetheless, Holton believes that if given a chance they can do it, and the home crowd at Ron Tonkin Field could make the difference.
"The atmosphere was incredible," Holton said. "I feel like we really have an advantage playing in front of this crowd and I definitely hope we can play here again."
Hillsboro catcher Lyle Lin finished 2-for-3 at the plate and was one of five Hops with hits in the game.
Holton and Snyder combined were one hit from a perfect game, striking out 13 without relinquishing a base-on-balls.
The Hops will face Salem-Keizer in Game 2 of their best-of-three divisional playoff series tonight at 6:35 p.m. at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer. If necessary, Game 3 will be played Friday at 6:35 p.m., also at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer.
If the Hops advance, they would host Games 1 and 2 of the best-of-five Northwest League Championship Series against either Spokane or Tri-City, beginning this Saturday, Sept. 7.
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