PASCO, WASH. --- Hillsboro Hops manager Javier Colina said before Wednesday's game at Gesa Stadium that he had full confidence in his pitching staff despite some recent uncharacteristic struggles. His team rewarded his confidence with a dominant 3-1 win over the Tri-City Dust Devils in the fifth and deciding game
PASCO, WASH. --- Hillsboro Hops manager Javier Colina said before Wednesday's game at Gesa Stadium that he had full confidence in his pitching staff despite some recent uncharacteristic struggles. His team rewarded his confidence with a dominant 3-1 win over the Tri-City Dust Devils in the fifth and deciding game of the 2019 Northwest League Championship Series. The Hops won their third NWL title in the seven-year history of the franchise, joining the 2014 and 2015 teams.
Hillsboro starter Conor Grammes worked the first three innings, allowing one run on four hits, and used his athleticism to get out of a key jam in the bottom of the second. Tri-City already led 1-0 and had runners at first and second with one out. Dust Devils center fielder Matthew Acosta ripped a shot up the middle, a near-certain RBI base hit, but the ball hit Grammes' foot and sprang high in the air. Grammes found it and threw Acosta out at first, then --- with runners at second and third --- retired Reinaldo Ilarraza on a ground out to first to end the threat.
With the Hops' recent offensive woes (they were out-scored 20-11 in the five-game series), keeping the deficit at 1-0 at that point was huge. And, in the end, Hillsboro provided the pitching staff with just enough offense.
The Hops tied the game in the top of the third when Ricky Martinez was hit by a pitch to begin the inning, advanced to third on an errant pickoff throw from Tri-City starter Nick Thwaits, and scored on a one-out double by Corbin Carroll. Then, in the top of the fourth, Hops catcher Lyle Lin hit a one-out double and scored on a single by Ryan January --- January's 17th RBI in his last 13 games. It was 2-1 Hops.
Ryne Nelson relieved Grammes in the bottom of the fourth, and the former Oregon Duck was dominant. He worked three innings, allowing no runs on two hits with one walk and six strikeouts.
Hillsboro added a run in the top of the seventh to make it 3-1. Jorge Barrosa singled to third base, Carroll was hit by a pitch, and Tristin English dropped a flare into shallow center to bring Barrosa home.
Right-hander Justin Garcia, who has made more appearances for the Hops than any other pitcher over the past two seasons, entered in the bottom of the seventh. After the mid- to high-90s heat of Grammes and Nelson, Garcia kept Tri-City off balance with an array of fastballs, curveballs and splitters. He tossed two shutout innings, allowing no hits, a walk and striking out three.
Then came the ninth, leading 3-1. Colina and pitching coach Barry Enright tasked Eduardo Herrera --- perhaps the hardest thrower among a high-octane staff --- with getting the final three outs. Herrera, who had finished second in the league in saves during the regular season, had suffered through some recent struggles and had to be bailed out in his most-recent outing in the first-round clinching game at Salem-Keizer.
There were to be no struggles Wednesday for Herrera. He retired Luke Becker on a soft come-backer, struck out Nick Gatewood, and when he whiffed Sean Guilbe on a check-swing, the celebration was on. Herrera, channeling his inner Jesse Orosco, tossed his glove high in the air and was mobbed by his teammates.
The final line for Hillsboro's quartet of right-handers? Nine innings, six hits, one run, three walks and 15 strikeouts. Nelson got the win, Herrera the save, and Thwaits took the loss.
The Hops' third Northwest League title came two days shy of four years since their last --- which they also won at Gesa Stadium.
It capped a remarkable season that saw Hillsboro's pitching staff record some historic numbers. Opponents hit just .205 against the Hops, by far the lowest batting-average-against in at least the last three decades (records in that category are readily available only back to 1990). That was an incredible .017 better than the next-closest club, the 2005 Vancouver Canadians (.222).
The championship was fitting, especially considering the talent on the club. The Arizona Diamondbacks (Hillsboro's parent club) had eight of the first 93 picks in the 2019 Major League Baseball first-year player draft (approximately 1200 players were selected overall), and seven of those eight played for the Hops. [Three of them --- Carroll (16th overall), Nelson (56th), and English (93rd) --- were instrumental in the championship game win.]
Add guys like Grammes (152nd overall), dominant late-season runs by left-handers Tyler Holton and Nick Snyder, the amazingly consistent defense of 18th-rounder Martinez, and key international signees like 18-year-old outfielder Kristian Robinson --- arguably the best player in the Northwest League prior to his promotion five weeks ago --- and you have the makings of a title.
Colina, the hitting instructor in 2015 and now the manager, won his second title with Hillsboro. Pitcher Cody Reed --- an up-and-comer with the Hops in 2015, and with Hillsboro on an injury-rehab assignment the final month of this season --- also earned his second Hops championship ring.
The 2019 Hops broke the Northwest League record --- the league is in its 65th year --- by earning a playoff berth for a sixth consecutive season. And now they have their third championship.
Meanwhile, the Tri-City Dust Devils and their fans are still waiting. Wednesday marked 6,658 days since the franchise's first game on June 19, 2001, and the Dust Devils have never won the league title. This was their fifth trip to the championship series.