Three years, three identical playoff matchups and three identical results.
Class A Short Season Eugene waited out early perfection by Matt Mercer to top Hillsboro, 3-2, on Thursday at Ron Tonkin Field and complete its third consecutive Northwest League semifinals win over its South Division rival.
The Cubs affiliate won the circuit title in 2016 and fell to the Vancouver Canadians in the Championship Series last year, advancing past the Hops in two games in the best-of-3 semifinals each time. This season, the Emeralds claimed the second Wild Card despite going 17-21 in the second half and finishing with the worst overall record, 20 games behind the Hops in the overall standings.
Hillsboro was 51-25, making it -- along with the 2016 Eugene club -- one of two Northwest League teams to notch 50 wins in a season in the past 10 years.
Barely hanging on to a chance at the playoffs down the stretch galvanized the team, according to Emeralds manager Steven Lerud.
"I think for us, more than anything, we've been playing in these types of games for two or three weeks just to stay afloat and stay alive in the race," he said. "So I don't think it was anything foreign to us. I think that, in the long run, it played to our advantage, being in a series like this, where really we have nothing to lose. Obviously, our record was what it was during the regular season and you get into playoff baseball, and this kind of stuff happens."
Eugene sent the minimum to the plate in eight of nine innings Thursday. But in the other one, the Emeralds made it count.
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Mercer, the D-backs' No. 24 prospect, delivered four hitless innings. The Hops extended the bid into the sixth, when Caleb Knight beat out a one-out infield single against Arizona's No. 25 prospect Jackson Goddard. Luis Vasquez followed with a base knock to right. Grant Fennell went down on strikes for the second out, but Nelson Velazquez legged out another infield hit, and Hops first baseman Zack Shannon missed the throw from shortstop Geraldo Perdomo. Two runs scored on the play and Luke Reynolds tacked on another run with a double to center.
"That's the way it happens. That's how playoff baseball works," Lerud said. "You're going to face the best pitching and you're not going to get the best pitches to hit, so you have to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to you. Luckily, we had the one inning where it did and it proved to be enough."
Hillsboro cut the lead to one on Joey Rose's RBI groundout in the sixth. Buddy Kennedy singled and William Gorman doubled to put the pressure on with one out in the ninth. But Riley McCauley shut the door by fanning Jorge Perez and forcing Arizona's No. 8 prospect Jake McCarthy to pop out to short.
"It was a tough one to watch, when you get to that part of the game. You just want to find the ending and see what's going to happen," Lerud said. "McCauley has done that kind of stuff for us all year since he's come over from the Draft ... and we're hoping he can build off that as we move on to the Championship Series."
Emeralds starter Faustino Carrera (1-0) allowed two runs -- one earned -- on five hits and two walks while striking out four over five innings to earn the win. Sean Barry scattered two hits and struck out five in 2 1/3 scoreless innings.
In other Northwest League playoff action:
AquaSox 8, Indians 3
Jansiel Rivera collected three hits, an RBI and a run and Bobby Honeyman plated two and scored once as Everett evened up the best-of-3 series. Cody Brown picked up the win after three scoreless innings and Dayeison Arias earned the save with two hitless frames. The decisive Game 3 will take place Friday at 4 p.m. ET in Spokane. Gameday box score