By Maverick Pallack/Portland Tribune/Sturdy outfielder shows speed, skill running bases

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Outfielder Jesus Marriaga has been a steady, and intense, presence this season as the Hillsboro Hops qualified again for the Northwest League playoffs.HILLSBORO —¬†Minor-league baseball rosters are constantly in flux. Whether due to promotions, demotions or injuries, lineups are ever-changing. So any stability or consistency a player can bring is a huge asset for minor league managers.

Jesus Marriaga's versatility, durability and work ethic not only made him an indispensable piece in the Hillsboro Hops' push to the playoffs but also turned him into a Class A Northwest League All-Star.

"It's part of my game. I have to take advantage of the tools and talent I have," the 20-year-old Colombian said via translator. "Every time I hit the ball, I always run hard. ... As long as I'm in the lineup, it doesn't matter where I play. I'm going to try to always do my best."

Marriaga not only plays every day, he can play all three outfield positions and hit in any spot in the lineup for the Hops, who have set a NWL record by qualifying for the playoffs for the sixth year in a row.

Hillsboro coach Chuy Mendoza said Marriaga should have a good run in baseball.

"I hope he continues to stay healthy because he's very durable," Mendoza said. "Nobody is going to take him out of the lineup the way he plays the game."

Marriaga, a 6-0, 170-pounder, has used his speed and patience to lead the NWL in runs and rank third in walks as of late last week.

"That's why he's in the lineup every day," Hillsboro manager Javier Colina said. "Even sometimes when he doesn't hit the ball well, he always gives me his best and brings a lot of energy to the team. The way he runs the bases and the way he plays the game, he's fun to watch."

Things haven't been easy for Marriaga this season. Like most young players, he has had ups and downs. But he has helped the team in some capacity, even when the hits weren't coming (he was batting .243 with five games left in the regular season).

Prior to winning the NWL player of the week award for July 8-14, Marriaga was struggling. He wasn't getting on base. On July 6, his batting average dropped to a season-low .185. He fell to the bottom third of the batting order, but he continued to "trust the process." And, after a pep talk from Colina, he was ready to show his worth. The conversation not only gave Marriaga confidence, it gave him a sense of belief from his coach.

"This is going to happen your whole career," Colina recalled telling Marriaga. "You're going to have ups and downs. The real men in baseball are those who come from the bottom.

"It's easy to stay and hit .300 all year. The real men are the ones who struggle. You're one of those guys. You need to step up, trust yourself, keep working in the cage and trust your ability. In the end, you're going to put up good numbers.'"

Marriaga also credited Mendoza, Hillsboro hitting coach Franklin Stubbs, and Arizona Diamondbacks hitting coach Jose Amado for his turnaround.

On July 7, the outfielder went 2 for 5 with two runs scored and an RBI, raising his batting average to .200 in the Hops' 11-0 win over the Boise Hawks.

In his award-winning week, he proved to be the diverse player the Hops were expecting when the season began, hitting .500 with eight runs scored and four RBIs.

Although Marriaga has come through with some big RBIs for the Hops, his hustle and base running remain his best qualities.

"The best part of my game is when I'm on the bases," he said. "Every time I'm on the bases, I feel like something can happen with my speed."

One example came on Aug. 18. With the Hops leading Tri-City 9-0 in the sixth inning, Marriaga grounded a ball to third base. Rather than accept an out, Marriaga sprinted out of the batter's box and beat the throw to earn his first hit of the day.

"He ran like it was 0-0 in the ninth. That says a lot about a player," said Mendoza, who had a front-row view of the play as the Hops' first-base coach. "That's who he is. I think he's going to continue to make managers love him because of his style of play."

Despite finding his stroke and returning to form, Marriaga is not satisfied. He's focused on improving and helping his team win games — with the aim now to capture the league championship.

"I'm trying to become a leader not just by saying the right things, but by doing the right things and working hard, trying to get better and being a good example," Marriaga said. "Every day for me is special because I get to come over here and play baseball."

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