Team off to faster start in second year in Northwest League

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHASE ALLGOOD - Ben Eckels, who has been part of a solid pitching staff for the Hillsboro Hops, delivers a pitch at Ron Tonkin Field during Year 2 of the teams run in the Class A Northwest League.HILLSBORO — Baseball is back in Hillsboro for its sophomore campaign, and the greater Portland area is coming out to enjoy a day at the ballpark.

“So far, it’s been a great start,” says Hops general manager K.L. Wombacher, 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.”

Attendance is 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 this season, down 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 says.

And the fans have gotten to enjoy much better baseball by the home team this season than last year. In 2013, the Hops were just 34-42. This season, Hillsboro is 15-9 and in first place in the NWL South Division, three games ahead of the Boise Hawks and four games in front of the Eugene Emeralds and Salem-Keizer Volcanoes.

“They’re playing hard,” Hops manager J.R. House says, of his players. “They get after it, it’s good energy, it’s good life. They chemistry has been good.”

Winning does not necessarily mean there will be an increase in attendance. Wombacher says 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 says, of having a winning record and being in first place. “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.”

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 be big leaguers. And House says his players have done a good job of 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 says. “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 says 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 says. “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.”

The strength of the Hops is on the mound. They are third in the eight-team Northwest League in pitching with a staff ERA of 3.42.

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 says. “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 of having 1990 National League Cy Young Award winner Doug Drabek as their pitching coach.

“He makes us a lot calmer,” Doran says. “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.”

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHASE ALLGOOD - Hillsboro Hops shortstop Justin Gonzalez celebrates the first home run at newly renamed Ron Tonkin Field.Hillsboro’s hitting is still working out a bit of the kinks. The Hops are fifth in batting average (.243) and fourth in runs (96). Returning catcher Elvin Soto (.328) and center fielder Grant Heyman (.337) are the only players on the roster hitting over .300.

“We’re scoring runs, and we have a chance to win every game, which is what you want,” Heyman says. “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,” says 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 says, of having Grace as the Hops’ 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 says. “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 are at Boise today through Thursday for a three-game NWL series. Then comes a stretch of seven home games in eight days. Hillsboro will play host to Salem-Keizer on Friday and Saturday. Then, after visiting the Volcanoes on Sunday, the Hops will welcome the Tri-City Dust Devils to Ron Tonkin Field for five games, Monday, July 14-18. All of the next seven home games start at 7 p.m.

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