Hops capture second straight NWL title

Pitcher of the Year Hernandez strikes out seven over 5 2/3 innings

The Hops celebrate after winning their second title in three seasons in Hillsboro. (Craig Mitchelldyer/Hillsboro Hops)

By Tyler Maun / MiLB.com | September 14, 2015 1:53 AM

Late Sunday night, the Hillsboro Hops' slogan #AllHoppedUp was trending on Twitter in Portland. The City of Roses loves its hometown champs. Some 240 miles away, the Hops were living out the phrase.

For the second straight season, the Hops are Northwest League champions.

Hillsboro plated four runs in the second inning and rode the right arm of Pitcher of the Year Carlos Hernandez to a 6-1 victory over Tri-City in the decisive third game of the Northwest League Finals.

"To get a bunch of guys at a low-level Minor League team to commit themselves to winning is special," Hops manager Shelley Duncan said from a jubilant clubhouse in Pasco, Washington. "The credit really should go to the players. For them to sacrifice some of their personal numbers and statistics and to give themselves to winning baseball games is a very special quality.

"As a Minor League baseball player, it's very tough. You see that in this group. You saw that last year in the culture that was started by [2014 Hops manager] J.R. House, and it's also the culture that the Diamondbacks organization has."

The Hops are building a mini-dynasty in Oregon. Hillsboro has won four straight division titles and back-to-back league championships -- all since relocating from Yakima in 2013. After cruising to the NWL's best regular-season record at 45-31, the Hops dispatched Salem-Keizer in the semifinals before going the distance with Tri-City.

"We were handed a really good team by our farm director and people in the organization. The talent was through the roof," Duncan said. "We had the best pitching in the league. We had great arms. We were last in the league in offense, but we had a bunch of position players who could do the little things day in and day out to win baseball games. Our defense was awesome. We were very lucky and fortunate to have the players that we did."

Sunday's star was Hernandez (2-0), who struck out seven while allowing one run on two hits over 5 2/3 innings. Backed by a four-run second that put the Hops ahead for good, the 21-year-old right-hander did not yield a hit after Carlos Belen's leadoff homer in the second.

"When Carlos gets in a groove, throwing his fastball for strike one and getting a good feel for his changeup and breaking ball, he almost becomes unhittable," Duncan said. "In the second or third inning, he started to get that feel. When he gets in that rhythm, where he just starts pumping strikes and pulling the string on the changeup, he becomes unhittable. That's what we saw with him in the middle of the game. That's the Carlos that earned the Northwest League Pitcher of the Year."

After Hernandez exited in the sixth, three Hops combined to blank the Dust Devils the rest of the way. Hillsboro added two insurance runs in the ninth before completing the win and touching off a raucous celebration at Gesa Stadium.

"You saw a commitment to taking each day by itself and putting a focus on winning the day," Duncan said. "These guys did that every single day throughout the whole season, and that can be a big grind. They embraced it. It was an attitude that was contagious."

With a 93-59 combined record over the last two seasons and an 8-2 mark in the playoffs, the Hops will defend their crown again in 2016.

"That has to go to the ownership of the Hillsboro Hops and the front office led by the [general manager], K.L. Wombacher," Duncan said. "They create an atmosphere in Hillsboro that is the best in the league. Every game, there's a great energy there. They do things for us at the stadium that very few higher level Minor League teams do for their players. It's a great atmosphere to be in. It creates a winning environment, and when you have a winning environment, people strive to do special things."

 

Tyler Maun is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @TylerMaun. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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