Shumpei Yoshikawa struck out nine while flashing an excellent curveball. But style points weren't enough for the Hillsboro Hops to overcome a stalwart hitting performance by the Vancouver Canadians, who exploded in the fifth inning to bury their stadium-mates Sunday, Sept. 19 — the final game of the High-A season.
Yoshikawa shouldered the 8-2 loss, although three of the five runs charged to him scored on reliever José Santamaria's watch in the decisive fifth. Two more were charged to Santamaria, although they scored on a throwing error by first baseman Tristin English, whose throw home on a fielder's choice ended up in the Canadians' dugout.
The Hops particularly struggled to keep the ball under control on defense, repeatedly giving up extra bases and even a run on missed connections between the pitcher and the catcher. Yoshikawa was charged with three wild pitches — at least a couple of which didn't get more than a few feet away from catcher Axel Andueza — and a passed ball by Andueza's defensive replacement, Luvin Valbuena, followed by a swinging strike 3 in the dirt allowed another run to score while Austin Pope was on the mound in the sixth inning.
Hops third baseman A.J. Vukovich homered in the loss. Canadians second baseman Tanner Morris also homered.
While Morris opened the Canadians' scoring Sunday with his no-doubt shot to right in the first inning, Vukovich's fourth-inning homer, a flyball to left off Vancouver starter Alejandro Melean that carried out of the park, was the final run the Hops could muster.
Melean earned the win for Vancouver, giving up two runs over 5 2/3 innings.
The crowd at Ron Tonkin Field for Sunday's game was sparse — perhaps owing in part to blustery weather on one of the coolest days of the season, perhaps owing in part to the contest's billing as a "road game" for the Hops. The announced attendance was 438.
In its home games, the Hops recorded the league's second-highest attendance this year, according to Baseball-Reference.com. But even when playing against the Hops, as they were Sunday, the Canadians struggled all season to draw regular crowds to their "home games" in Hillsboro.
For both teams, it was a long season: a 120-game schedule, up from 76 in 2019. And as if to underscore just how long it's been, as the Hops and Canadians played their second inning Sunday, the Hops' Opening Day starter, Luis Frías, was making his major league debut out of the Arizona Diamondbacks' bullpen.
Frías started and earned the win for Hillsboro back on May 4. He made one more start for the Hops before the Diamondbacks promoted him to Double-A Amarillo.
Frías' debut Sunday afternoon marks the first time that a prospect who started the season in Hillsboro has reached the major leagues in the same season. He pitched two-thirds of an inning, walking three but not allowing a hit or a run. He struck out Houston Astros second baseman and former American League MVP José Altuve with a sweeping slider for his first major league strikeout.
The Hops and Canadians played this season at a higher competition level than the Class A Short Season classification in which they previously played. In a minor league reorganization last year, six teams from the old Northwest League were moved up to the new High-A West circuit. That means a longer season, tougher competition, and a quicker path from Hillsboro to Arizona, or Vancouver to Toronto, than ever before.
Ron Tonkin Field was tested this year not just by the longer season, but also by hosting the Canadians this season. Unable to play in Vancouver, British Columbia, due to travel restrictions between the United States and Canada, the Canadians used Ron Tonkin Field as their home base all year — meaning they played home games while the Hops were out of town, and vice versa, and the teams played variously as the "home" and "visiting" squads when they played each other at the Tonk.
For the final series of the season, including Sunday's game, it was the Canadians' turn to play as the home team, with the Hops instead batting at the top of each inning as a visiting team would.
While the Hops and Canadians were set to play six games in their final week — the standard series length for the 2021 minor league season — Saturday, Sept. 18's game was canceled due to rain. The Hops won the first four games of the series.
Some of the games in the 120-game schedule didn't end up taking place. What was supposed to be the Hops' penultimate series, visiting the Tri-City Dust Devils in Pasco, Washington, was canceled because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the Dust Devils' clubhouse. Saturday's game was canceled by weather, as was the second game of a June 6 doubleheader in Everett, Washington.
All told, the Hops ended up playing 112 games in 2021. They went 52-60, good for fourth among High-A West teams.
The Canadians played 119 games, with a 55-64 record, fifth in High-A West.
Neither team's record was enough to put them in the playoffs. It was the Hops' first losing season since 2013, their first year in Hillsboro.
Travel rules permitting, the Canadians say they plan to play their 2022 season in British Columbia as usual. Next year's slate of games is expected to expand again to 132 at the High-A level, as well as to include a full postseason tournament.
By Mark Miller
Editor-in-Chief, Washington and Columbia counties
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