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Repeat champion Hops make more memories

COURTESY: CRAIG MITCHELLDYER - Hillsboro Hops players head to the mound to celebrate their repeat Northwest League championship Sunday night. The Hops beat the Tri-City Dust Devils 6-1 to take the NWL title series 2 games to 1.PASCO, Wash. —  The champagne bottles had been popped and shaken with gusto, their contents chugged or sprayed on everyone and everything amid the total mayhem that consumed the visitors’ clubhouse at Gesa Stadium.

Once the shouting, dancing and singing finally ceased Sunday evening, Hillsboro manager Shelley Duncan addressed his players. The Hops had justcaptured the Northwest League championship for the second year in a row.

“We go back to extended spring training (in Arizona): Honestly, we were a bunch of clumsy (blankers),” Duncan deadpanned.

Once the laughter in the room died down, Duncan continued.

“We played sloppy baseball. We were just running around the bases. We didn’t do things right.

“But every day, we woke up at 5 in the morning, and what did we do? We grinded. We embraced the suck.”

Duncan’s players took turns embracing the league championship trophy after thumping Tri-City 6-1 in Game 3 of the best-of-three championship series.

Duncan, a former major league player whose playing career came to an end last year, thanked his players for helping him fulfill his childhood dream of managing after his playing days.

“You’re the best group of teammates for each other I have ever seen in my life, and I am so proud to be your manager,” Duncan said. “I thank you from the bottom of my heart. You’ve given me my first year of managing, the best experience in my life. You’ve given me a championship and memories I’ll have forever.”

The Hops, who owned the league’s best record in the regular season (45-31), put it all together in the title game. Carlos Hernandez and three relievers combined on a three-hitter; second baseman Sergio Alcantara keyed an errorless defensive performance; and the light-hitting Hops were never threatened after pounding out four of their eight hits while taking a 4-0 lead in the second inning.

Gloves and caps flew in the air as players raced toward the mound to embrace one another in a mob scene after the final pitch. World records for hugs, high-fives and face-breaking grins may have fallen in the ensuing lovefest.

“We had a lot of fun (in the title game),” third baseman Nate Robertson said. “From the first pitch to the last pitch, we executed.

“It’s so awesome,” he said with a huge smile. “It’s so much fun. This group of guys is amazing. There’s not too many greater feelings than this.”

A small group of Hops fans and employees gave Hernandez a standing ovation when he left the game. The fourth-year pro from the Dominican Republic, the league’s pitcher of the year, limited Tri-City to one run and two hits in 5 2/3 innings. He struck out seven and walked two.

“It was just a lot of fun to watch him all season long, even in extended (spring training),” Robertson said. “The kid knows how to pitch. He gave it his all.”

"He’s Pitcher of the Year for a reason,” said Tri-City manager Anthony Contreras, whose minor league playing career included stops at Salem-Keizer and Portland.

As usual, Hernandez did a nice job of mixing his fastball, curve and changeup to make up for so-so velocity. The right-hander may be even smaller than his listed 5 feet, 11 inches and 177 pounds, but he won’t admit it.

“I don’t know,” he said after participating in a rousing sing-a-long to Spanish music in the clubhouse. “I don’t pay attention to that.

“I just try to pitch with what I’ve got. I don’t think about what I don’t got, but I think that’s helped me out a lot. Being this size and this skinny, it’s taught me to work hard. Be a smart pitcher instead of an overpowering one.

“I like my body,” he concluded. “It gives me confidence.”

Having Alcantara playing behind him certainly did not hurt Hernandez’s confidence. The 19-year-old Dominican made three dazzling plays in the title game, but the “SportsCenter” top 10 candidate was a full-length, diving catch of a foul pop-up after a long run at top speed.

“I knew he would back me up, he would give everything for me,” Hernandez said.

Robertson added, “I’ve seen a lot of plays in my life, and that one on the line when he dove, that was unreal.”

Robertson, one of four returnees off last year’s playoff roster, helped the bottom third of the batting order spark the Hillsboro offense. Josh Anderson, Robertson and Alcantara combined to go 6 for 11 with five RBIs and three runs before a crowd of 1,211.

Anderson, the No. 7 hitter, doubled in Hillsboro’s first run in the second inning. Robertson followed with a two-run double, and No. 9 hitter Alcantara started off his three-hit night with an RBI single.

“For them to put up a 4-spot kind of took the air out of us,” Tri-City first baseman Ty France said.

Alcantara singled in Anderson in the ninth inning, when the Hops added two insurance runs. Tri-City’s only run came on a leadoff homer by Carlos Belan in the bottom of the second.

“It was a fastball,” Hernandez said. “He put a really good swing on it. It was high and inside.”

Hernandez seemed infinitely more interested in talking about his teammates’ accomplishments than his own.

“We’re a team,” he explained. “We don’t care what we do (individually), we just care if we win.

“We always try to help each other and take each other’s backs. It’s an amazing team. It’s an amazing atmosphere. If you do bad, they have your back. If you do good, they have your back.”

Hernandez said Duncan, pitching coach Doug Drabek and hitting coach Javier Colina helped the cause.

“They brought us together,” Hernandez said. “We embraced it. We came together as a team.”

Hernandez summed up the season and the final game when he said, “This team was a blast to play for. I feel honored and blessed.”COURTESY: CRAIG MITCHELLDYER - The Hillsboro Hops savor winning the Northwest League championship trophy for the second year in a row.

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