Baseball isn't easy, and playing at the professional level is the furthest thing from it. In fact, Popular Science once said that hitting a baseball was the hardest thing to do in sports.
Throw in the travel, the money, the physical toll on the body, and wives and kids at home longing for their husband or dad who's playing a kids game often thousands of miles away, and you've got a pressure-cooker for a young adult wondering if it's all worth it.
That reality came to the forefront this past week when the Hillsboro Hops' 24-year-old first baseman Spencer Brickhouse retired.
The former East Carolina Pirate spent two and a half seasons playing professionally, with the final year and a half in Hillsboro.
Hops manager Vince Harrison said Brickhouse had been struggling with injuries for the better part of the last year, and with a new wife at home, the now-former professional knew it was time.
"He was at peace with the decision," Harrison said. "This was probably going to be a make-or-break season for him, and playing with pain and having a new wife and house at home, it started to get the best of him. I think he just realized that there's things in his life that are more important, and he walked away with no regrets."
On the field, the Hops started the week where they'd left the last one — with a loss, followed by another loss.
But after extending their losing streak to 10 games with a 4-0 loss to Spokane June 15, Hillsboro split the final two games of the six-game series with the Indians to get a little back on track heading into their series with Vancouver June 21 through June 26 at Ron Tonkin Field.
"We were in every game, and the reality is that Spokane has what I think are a handful of future big-leaguers," Harrison said. "No one wants moral victories. We want the actual ones. But I thought we did some good things this week, and hopefully that will help us this week."
Harrison specifically mentioned the type of outs the team was making earlier in the week as problematic. The manager said that part of getting better at the professional level is making at-bats count. That could include where on the field you ground out; hitting a deep fly opposed to a shallow pop up; or simply going deep into a count in the interest of making a pitcher work. All were things Harrison said they weren't doing early in the week but did a much better job of as the week progressed.
"It's not just about getting hits, it's about timely hits and productive outs," he said. "When you're playing against good players, you need to understand that it's the little things that matter and that can help you win games."
Hops utilityman and West Linn native Tim Tawa — like the rest of his team — is learning that as he goes. The first-year professional from Stanford is leading the team in batting average for players with at least 20 games of action, hitting .284, and is also tops in home runs (8) and RBIs (29), while in at least the top three in on-base-percentage, slugging, and on-base-plus-slugging.
But while a steady contributor throughout the season, Harrison said Tawa too has needed to make strides at being more productive at the plate.
"Earlier in the year, he was missing pitches early in the count, but now he's far more aggressive, and guys aren't getting away with pitches on him early in the count," Harrison said. "I've seen that confidence grow in him, and he's just been solid. He's been a glue guy for us all year."
Tawa hit .360 with two home runs and two doubles in six games versus the Indians.
Catcher Caleb Roberts too had a hot bat last week, batting .389. It was a welcome sight for both the 22-year-old from the University of North Carolina — who's hitting just .219 this season — and his manager, who credited Roberts' timing as the key to his success.
"I think last week, he just gave himself a better chance because he's hitting fastballs better," the manager said. "That allows him to recognize the breaking balls, not get behind in counts, and not be in a fight-or-flight moment."
On the mound, the Hops got an outstanding performance from John Carver in a 4-2 win June 16.
Carver held Spokane to just one earned run on two hits, while striking out eight and walking two in eight innings of work.
Harrison said that one of the keys to Carver's success is controlling his fastball and getting ahead in counts.
"When he establishes that, he's going to throw strikes and pound the zone. It makes his breaking ball better. And that's what he did," Harrison said. "I was pleasantly happy with what he did last week, but not surprised."
The Hops hit .261 against Spokane last week and pitched to a 3.60 ERA, opposed to their season average of 3.98. One would think with numbers like that, they'd have managed a better record against the home Indians, but Harrison said it's often about the timing of both key hits and pitches, and with things trending in a good direction, along with the strides he felt they made between their ears during the week, things were looking up heading into this week's series with Vancouver.
"I like what I saw," the manager said. "The guys are working, and I think we'll start to see that pay off on the field."
Last week's results:
Spokane 9, Hillsboro 2
Spokane 4, Hillsboro 0
Hillsboro 4, Spokane 2
Hillsboro 12, Spokane 3
Spokane 3, Hillsboro 1
Everett 30-32 Tri
Tim Tawa hit .360 with two home runs and two doubles in six games versus Spokane.
Outfielder Caleb Roberts batted .389 in the series with the Indians.
Starting pitcher John Carver allowed just two hits while striking out eight in eight innings against Spokane.
Kenny Hernandez has a 1.35 ERA over the last 30 days, striking out 21 while walking just six.
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