When Hillsboro manager Shelley Duncan first saw Luis Veras, he knew the 21-year-old outfielder was a special player. On Thursday, he gave his skipper even more reason to believe in him.
Veras collected two hits, including the go-ahead single in the bottom of the eighth inning, as the Hops edged Tri-City, 2-1, to take Game 1 of the Northwest League Finals at Ron Tonkin Field.
The native of the Dominican Republic helped Hillboro get on the board in the second by tripling to center field and coming around to score on a single to center by Alexis Olmeda.
Later, Veras came up with the bases loaded and one out in the eighth. Facing Dust Devils southpaw Nathan Foriest, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound D-backs outfield prospect shot a ground ball through the middle for what turned out to be the game-winning hit.
"All series long and the last couple weeks of the season, he's been putting together very good at-bats," said Duncan. "He's seeing the ball deep, he's not chasing a lot of pitches and he's driving balls up the middle and the other way.
"When I first saw Luis in Spring Training, I saw a lot of very special things in him and that's what I saw [tonight]. He started the season off a little rough, but as the season progressed he was making adjustment after adjustment and you started to see him really improve at the plate. You can't have a better time to reach the top of your potential like he is right now."
The Hops, who owned the Northwest League's best ERA (3.27) during the regular season, got seven strong innings from starter Brett Shankin. The right-hander surrendered a run on five hits with a walk and five strikeouts. Reliever Ariel Hernandez (1-0) held Tri-City scoreless through the final 1 2/3 frames, allowing one hit and three walks while fanning two.
Both performances may have been for naught without Veras' heroics, though Duncan said it could have been anyone in a lineup filled with clutch performers.
"We can count on [Grant] Heyman, [Trevor] Mitsui, Olmeda, [Zach] Nehrir, [Dansby] Swanson, who's doing an unbelievable job setting the tone," Duncan said. "Even guys at the bottom part of the lineup are coming up with big hits here and there and finding ways to put runs on the board.
"All season long, the pitching has been the story for us, and we have to do little things right to score one or two runs. Sometimes two runs gets us a win like it did tonight, and it truly does take a team effort when that happens."
The series shifts to the Dust Devils' GESA Stadium for Game 2 on Saturday, and the skipper likes his team's collective mind-set as the Hops inch closer to back-to-back Northwest League titles.
"The guys, I really mean it, they do a great job at focusing on today," Duncan said. "The playoff atmosphere here in Hillsboro is unbelievable. It's really creating a nice buzz for these players. It's a real fun feel for these guys."