Minor league baseball generates positive buzz from fans in Hillsboro

For the sophomore campaign in Hillsboro, it’s so far, so good for the HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Hillsboro Hops starter Ryan Doran delivers a pitch during a Northwest League game against Vancouver. Doran has a 2.61 ERA so far this year.

“So far, it’s been a great start,” Hops general manager K.L. Wombacher said of the fan support. “It feels like there’s a lot more buzz, like there’s a lot more excitement (than last year). Our preseason ticket sales were about 60 percent ahead of last year. We had a more productive year than last year.”

Not only did fans buy tickets ahead of this season, but they also continued to turn out. About a third of the way into the season, attendance has been solid — the Hops rank third in the Northwest League, the same spot they occupied in their maiden season of 2013. The average home crowd has been 3,408 so far this season, down only slightly from last year’s 3,557 full-season average, but prime summer dates remain.

“From a general standpoint, it just feels more exciting, and it feels like more people are talking about it,” Wombacher said.

Though it seems like it should, winning does not necessarily translate into an increase in attendance. Wombacher said the atmosphere at Ron Tonkin Field, renamed this season after its debut a year ago as Hillsboro Ballpark, is a much more important factor to ticket sales.

“If we keep playing this way, we’ll see what kind of impact it has,” Wombacher said about the team’s winning, first-place record. “But historically, team record doesn’t have a lot to do with minor league attendance. It’s the atmosphere. People have fun and they come back.”

In a major plus this season, the fans who have turned out have gotten to enjoy much better baseball. In 2013, the Hops were just 34-42, a record buoyed by a late-season hot streak. This season, through Tuesday, Hillsboro was 15-10 and sat in first place in the NWL South Division, two games ahead of the Boise Hawks, three games in front of the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, and four games up on the Eugene HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Hillsboro Hops infielder Pedro Ruiz makes a throw to first base during a Northwest League baseball game against Salem-Keizer on June 18.

It took the Hops until July 27 last year to record 15 wins.

“They’re playing hard,” Hops manager J.R. House said about this year’s group. “They get after it, it’s good energy, it’s good life. The chemistry has been good.”

Of course, the most important thing for the short season Class A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks is to develop players so that they might one day become big leaguers. And House said his players have done a good job utilizing their time at the ballpark to improve themselves.

“They’re using the time that they’re at the yard on improving themselves. It’s not wasted,” House said. “That’s the key. Some people are going to go farther than others, and they’re going to develop at a faster rate. But if you can manage your time while you’re here properly and do everything you can to get better, that’s the key. For the most part, they’re doing that.”

House said winning ballgames is important, too, of course, because it breeds a culture inside an organization and helps players improve at a higher rate.

“As a minor league system, we believe in not only development, but in winning,” House said. “Winning helps you develop quicker, because you can put the players in more intense, pressure situations more often. When it’s a 10-run game and you’re getting blown out, or you’re winning by that much, you get away with so much more and you don’t learn as much. Winning games when it’s close is key.”

Close games are something the Hops have gotten used to during their time in Hillsboro. The team played its 100th game earlier this week, and in that time frame, 39 games have been decided by a single run. Hillsboro is 7-4 in one-run games so far this season.

Given the squad’s propensity for close games, the strong pitching staff has been a boon this summer. Through Tuesday, the Hops ranked third in the eight-team Northwest League in pitching with a staff ERA of 3.75.

Some of the Hops’ top pitchers are starters Ryan Doran (1-2, 2.61 ERA) Ben Eckels (2-0, 2.86) and Brent Jones (2-1, 3.32). The relievers have been pitching well, too, including Zac Curtis (0-1, 2.00, six saves in nine appearances), Nick Baker (1-0, 2.25, one save in four relief stints) and Cody Geyer (2-0, 0.00, three saves in nine appearances).

“It’s a pretty complete staff,” Doran said. “We have good starting pitching, one through five. You have an ace in almost every slot. You can win a game with almost all of our starters. Our middle relief is extremely underrated. A lot of teams have trouble there. But we have some guys there who are bona fide starters and closers. They can do a lot of things. And our closers are dominant. They come in and shut the door, and they don’t get rattled out there.

“We’re confident, and we know pitching is what’s going to win championships.”

The Hops pitchers have the advantage in working with 1990 National League Cy Young Award winner Doug Drabek as their pitching coach.

“He makes us a lot calmer,” Doran said. “He has a very calm demeanor about him, and he doesn’t freak out about things that a lot of pitching coaches freak out about. That’s just a tribute to his experience of pitching a good number of years and being very successful. It rubs off on us and breeds confidence through our entire staff.”

Hillsboro’s hitting is still working out a bit of the kinks at this point. The Hops are fifth in the NWL in batting average (.241) and fourth in runs scored (111). Returning catcher Elvin Soto (.306) and outfielder Grant Heyman (.326) are the only players currently on the roster hitting above .300.

“We’re scoring runs, and we have a chance to win every game, which is what you want,” Heyman said. “Some games we haven’t scored in the last couple of innings. We’re swinging it, but we can also be better.”

The Hops are much more inclined to let their batters take their hacks than to play small ball, which makes it a lot more fun for Hillsboro’s hitters.

“I love it as a hitter,” said Heyman, a 20-year-old from Pittsford, N.Y. “We’re aggressive, and we don’t play small ball. If there’s a runner in scoring position, we’re going to hit them in. That’s a really good approach for us, and it’s paid off. As a hitter, you love that kind of stuff.”

Hillsboro’s hitters are able to seek the advice of hitting coach Mark Grace, the former standout with the Chicago Cubs.

“It’s amazing,” Heyman said about having Grace as a hitting coach. “To have someone be your hitting coach that was a big league all-star, is pretty incredible. He’s been a great help so far. He’s not a guy who’s going to completely change your swing, but he helps you make adjustments, which is what baseball is all about.”

With the season still relatively young, House says he wants to continue seeing improvement from his ballclub in every aspect of the game.

“We need to get better everywhere,” he said. “We need to get better behind the plate catching-wise, we need to get better offensively, battling with two strikes, hitting better with runners in scoring position, taking better leads on the steal, executing the bunt plays, catching the ball on stolen bases ... and a lot of pitchers need to get individually better with their stuff. There’s tons of improvement to be made.”

The Hops wrapped up a run of six road games in seven days on Thursday. Now they get to settle back in at Ron Tonkin Field for a bit, with seven home games in eight days starting tonight.

Hillsboro kicks off a three-game series against Salem-Keizer at 7:05 tonight. After another home game Saturday, the Hops visit the Volcanoes on Sunday. Then the Hops welcome the Tri-City Dust Devils to Ron Tonkin Field for a five-game stint from Monday through next Friday, July 18.

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