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By Wade Evanson/Pamplin Media Group/Hillsboro's 18-year-old shortstop hits walk-off double against Salem-Keizer

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - The Hillsboro Hops celebrate Liover Peguero's walk-off double near second base. Hillsboro is one win from the NWL championship series.
HILLSBORO — 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, the Hillsboro Hops flipped the script.

The Hops tied the game in the eighth, and in the ninth, Hillsboro's Liover Peguero delivered a one-out, walk-off ground-rule double to push the Hops to a 2-1 win and 1-0 lead in their three-game playoff series with the Volcanoes for the Northwest League South Division title -- with a trip to the NWL finals on the line.

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. That set the table for Peguero's heroic swat.

With runners on first and second, and one out, the 18-year-old second-year pro, who spent the bulk of the season in Missoula of the Pioneer League, hit a laser to left-center field. It one-hopped over the wall, scoring Tristan English and setting off a raucous celebration that included a mob of players, a bucket 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. But Peguero was steadfast 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."

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Hillsboro's Tyler Holton hurls a pitch Wednesday against Salem-Keizer.Holton was less interested in talking about his performance and more absorbed by the moment and the magnitude of 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 an ulnar collateral ligament tear on opening day of his final season at Florida State, 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 center, but the lefty gathered himself and struck out 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 three hits while pitching out of jams in the sixth and seventh innings. In the seventh, he struck out the final two batters with one out and the tying run on second.

But then Miguel Figueroa found himself in a pinch in the eighth.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Hillsboro's Liover Peguero watches as his ninth-inning hit heads for the gap during the Hops' playoff game with Salem-Keizer on Wednesday at Ron Tonkin Field.
Leadoff bater Corban Carroll beat out a ground ball to first, then advanced 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 to right center 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 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 center, 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 3-2 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 addressed that in the dugout.

"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 against the North champion there to win it all, the league champ has to be determined.

Holton said he believes the Hops 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 hope we can play here again."

Hillsboro catcher Lyle Lin finished 2 for 3 at the plate and was one of five Hops a hit.

Holton and Snyder were one hit from a perfect game, striking out 13 without relinquishing a walk.

The Hops will face Salem-Keizer in Game 2 Thrusday at 6:30 p.m. at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer. If necessary, Game 3 would be played there at 6:30 p.m. Friday.

If the Hops advance, they would play host to Games 1 and 2 of the best-of-five championship Series against Spokane or Tri-City. That series will start on Saturday.

Tri-City won the North series opener on Wednesday, 4-3 in 12 innings at Spokane.

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