The Eugene Emeralds got all the offense they needed in the sixth inning; all of their offense period.
Without a base runner through five, the Ems scored three times in the sixth and shut down the Hops the rest of the way for a shocking 3-2 win and two-game playoff series sweep at Ron Tonkin Field Thursday night. For the third year in a row, the Emeralds ended the Hops' season in the divisional playoff round and will move to the Championship Series, where they lost to Vancouver last year and beat Everett in 2016.
The sixth inning was most unkind to the Hillsboro Hops in this postseason as the Emeralds had scored the go-ahead runs in the same frame the previous night, also a 3-2 Hops loss. It was downright cruel Thursday night as the visiting team had no hits and but one base runner in the other eight innings.
Hillsboro took a 1-0 lead in the first when Jake McCarthy led off the game with a bloop double to left off Faustino Carrera, advanced to third on a Geraldo Perdomo hot grounder off the glove of third baseman Jake Slaughter for a hit, and scored on Joey Rose's sacrifice fly to center.
The Hops had opportunities to score in the third and fifth inning, putting the first two runners aboard in the third and the leadoff man on base in the fifth, but could not come up with a timely hit against Carrera (1-0), the Northwest League's ERA leader at 2.58.
Meanwhile, Hops' starting pitcher Matt Mercer, a fifth-round draft pick from the University Of Oregon, was dominant though four innings, striking out six and retiring all 12 batters he faced. Jackson Goddard (0-1), drafted two rounds ahead of Mercer by the Diamondbacks out of the University of Kansas, retired the side in order in the fifth and got Fernando Kelli to ground out to short to open the sixth. Caleb Knight followed with a soft, one-hop liner to the left of first. Hops' first baseman Zack Shannon, the Pioneer League batting champ and two-time Division II Player of the Year, could not make a diving stop as the ball caromed off his glove to the center of the infield. Light-hitting shortstop Luis Vazquez followed with a base hit to right before the runners pulled off a double-steal on a swinging strike three with leadoff batter Grant Fennell at the plate.
Still, Goddard was nearly out of the inning when Nelson Velazquez sent a grounder up the middle. Perdomo ranged far to his left to glove the ball behind second and threw to first just ahead of the speeding Velazquez. Shannon made the stretch, but he ball clanked off his glove as both Knight and Vazquez scored. Luke Reynolds followed with an RBI double off reliever Travis Moths to put the Ems up 3-1 going into the bottom of the sixth.
L.T. Tolbert led off the bottom of the inning with a bunt single and moved to second when Shannon worked a full count walk after falling behind 0-2. That was it for Carrera, who gave way to right hander Fauris Guerrero, a recent addition to the Ems pen up from the Arizona League. His first pitch went off the glove of catcher Caleb Knight for a passed ball, putting the tying runs in scoring position. On a 3-2 pitch, Joey Rose grounded out to short, scoring Tolbert and moving the pinch-running Kevin Watson, Jr. to third base. After Buddy Kennedy walked to load the bases, Guerrero struck out the pinch-hitting Zach Almond, who joined the Hops from Missoula along with Kennedy and Shannon less than a week ago.
As Moths and Josh Green kept Eugene stifled for the final three innings, the Hops could not tough Eugene righty Sean Barry, who retired seven straight with five strikeouts before Kennedy hit a bouncing ball up the middle for one-out infield hit in the ninth. Pinch-hitter Will Gorman followed with a double into the right center gap and the Hops had the tying and winning runs in scoring position with one down. But Riley McCauley came in and fanned Jorge Perez on a 3-2 high fastball, before inducing a game-ending pop-up from McCarthy as the Emeralds celebrated their third consecutive elimination win over Hillsboro.
All four of the Emeralds hits and all three of their runs came in the sixth. They had only one base runner outside of that inning when Jonathan Sierra walked to lead off the seventh, but he was promptly thrown out trying to steal by Yerzy.
The Hops had seven hits, but were 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position and finished 1-for-19 in the series.
The Hops finished the regular season with a franchise record win total and the Northwest League's best record at 51-25. The Emeralds had the worst record in the league at 31-45, but by finishing with the second-best second-half division record at 17-21, 10 games behind Hillsboro, earned the playoff bid under the new league rules. Hillsboro is now 1-6 in the postseason against Eugene the last three seasons with six consecutive losses.
The Ems await the winner of the North Division series between Everett and Spokane, which moved to a deciding third game after the AquaSox beat the Indians 8-3 in Spokane Thursday night.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.