Talk about the unlikeliest of heroes.
Jose Queliz, Hillsboro's third-string catcher, delivered an RBI single down the third base line with two outs in the tenth inning to score Mark Karaviotis with the game-winning run in a 4-3 victory over the Eugene Emeralds Wednesday night in the first game of the Northwest League South Division playoff series.
The veteran catcher has enviable size and defensive skills, but has had to cool his heels as the Hops primary bullpen catcher, the fifth-year professional from Venezuela sitting behind second-year pros Luke Lowery and Alexis Olmeda all season long.
Queliz played in just 14 games during the Northwest League regular season, but hit a tiebreaking three-run homer in the Hops' 6-1 win over Eugene in the season finale before delivering the walk-off blow Wednesday night. The series shifts to Eugene's P.K. Park Thursday night for game two, with game three also in Eugene Friday night if necessary.
The Hops tied the game on a passed ball in the eighth inning, with Luke Lowery scoring from third on a pitch off the glove of Eugene catcher Tyler Payne. In a flashback to Sunday's game against Eugene, which the Hops won on a ninth-inning passed ball, Payne chased the loose ball over toward the Hops dugout as pinch-runner Matt McPhearson followed Lowery, trying to score from second. The throw back to pitcher Dakota Mekkes came as McPhearson came in with a headfirst slide, pulling his right arm back as he tried to sneak around the tag with his left hand. After home plate umpire Randy Wilmes called McPhearson out, Hops' manager Shelley Duncan flew down the third base line as if he were a third baserunner trying to score and argued briefly to no avail.
Curtis Taylor, the Hops' fifth pitcher of the night, pitched two scoreless innings in his longest pro outing, limiting Eugene to a single walk with one strikeout in the ninth and tenth innings.
Eugene reliever Michael Rucker (0-1), a hard-throwing native of Lake Tapps, Washington, fanned Jason Morozowski leading off the ninth before Karaviotis hit a hard ground ball past diving third baseman Wladimir Galindo for a double. After striking out Josh Anderson looking at a 95 mph fastball, Rucker intentionally walked Lowery to get to Queliz, who banged a 2-1 fastball on the inner half down the third base line. Galindo, playing well off the line, thinking the light-hitting backstop wouldn't get around on Rucker's heater, had no chance. Karaviotis was pumping his fist in victory celebration before his foot hit third on the way home.
It was a back-and-forth game with two of the league's top lefthanded pitchers on the mound. NWL Pitcher Of The Year Manuel Rondon had allowed one earned run in five starts in the month of August, but Luis Veras turned on a 1-0 pitch and sent a rocket over the wall in left for his first home run of the season. Hillsboro's Anfernee Benitez, a NWL 2016 All-Star and the league-leader in victories with seven, left a change-up up in the strike zone and Eugene's Robert Garcia hit a towering shot out to left that nearly cleared the Frontier Family Berm.
Eugene took the lead in the fourth on Zack Short's RBI double, scoring Wladimir Galindo, who had walked. The Hops countered with a walk and two singles off Rondon in the bottom of the inning, Lowery scoring on Adam Walton's two-out, RBI single to right. In the fifth inning, Kevonte Mitchell hit a leadoff infield single off the foot of Benitez, later scoring on Yeiler Peguero's two-out liner over the head of Anderson at third.
The Hops "bullpen bandits" shut down Eugene over the final five innings, as Connor Grey, Colin Poche, Riley Smith and Taylor combined on allowed just three base runners on a hit, walk and hit batter. The Emeralds twice sacrificed leadoff baserunners to second, but could not score.
Morozowski went 2-for-4 with a walk for the Hops and Lowery scored twice. Short had two of Eugene's five hits.
The first-round North Division playoff game between Everett and Spokane was rained out in Everett. The teams travel to Spokane to play Thursday night and Friday's second game will be at Safeco Field in Seattle.