Whether the Tri-City Dust Devils win their first Northwest League championship or not this weekend, the team’s first-year manager, Anthony Contreras, will always remember them as the team that wouldn’t quit.
With a 4-2 win over Everett on Tuesday at Gesa Stadium, the Dust Devils swept the AquaSox in the NWL North Division playoffs 2-0, holding them to just three runs on 13 hits over 25 innings, including a 16-inning, 2-1 road victory in Game 1 — a game in which they trailed as late as the seventh inning. That earned them the right to play for the NWL title starting today or Friday on the road. Hillsboro and Salem-Keizer were tied in the 11th inning late Wednesday night.
If Tri-City plays Hillsboro, the best-of-3 series will start today; if it’s Salem-Keizer, the first game is Friday.
Games 2 and 3 (if necessary) will be held at 7:15 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday at Gesa Stadium. Tickets are available at the front office, online at www.dustdevilsbaseball.com or by calling 544-8789.
“It just shows how they don’t panic, no matter what. Everett went up (1-0), and these guys were still joking around and having a good time,” Contreras said. “I told (Peter) Van Gansen at third base that these guys remind me of a team I played on in 2011 (the Double-A San Antonio Missions, which went on to win the Texas League championship). We would get down by five runs, and you wouldn’t see any panic. That’s how we’re playing.”
The Dust Devils have played for the NWL championship three times — in 2007, 2009 and 2011 under manager Freddie Ocasio — but have never won a title. This time, however, they have built up quite a bit of momentum heading into the championship series, winning their last eight games.
Tri-City teams have won five NWL championships since the league’s inception in 1955. The Tri-City Atoms won three titles (1965-66, 1968), and one apiece by the Tri-City Padres (1971) and Tri-Cities Triplets (1984).
“I think we were all very confident coming into the playoffs. We knew we’d give it a good run,” said Dust Devils second baseman Kodie Tidwell, who was the hero in Game 1, driving in both Tri-City runs. “(Winning Game 1) was huge. It gave us momentum for (Tuesday). They got a couple big hits, but we’ve come back in the latter half of games all year. And our bullpen kept us in it like always.”
The Dust Devils offense, which finished second in the league with 390 runs scored and led the league in on-base percentage (.351), is led by first baseman Ty France (.294 batting average, 20 doubles, 36 RBIs), shortstop Peter Van Gansen (.267, 45 runs) and outfielders Jose Carlos Urena (.258, 7 home runs, 46 RBIs) and Rod Boykin (.250, 49 runs, 19 stolen bases).
“We always seem to come through in big situations,” Boykin said. “Coaches tell us not to try to do too much. If you try to do too much, you end up doing stuff you’re not used to doing. If you do the small things, it plays out big.”
Lately, it’s the pitching staff that has set Tri-City apart. Dust Devils pitchers, who allowed the fewest walks (255) in the NWL this year, haven’t allowed more than two runs in a game over the past seven contests. The staff is led by starters Angel Mejia (6-3, 4.95 ERA) and Jose Castillo (3-1, 3.61), who has won two of his last three starts. The relief crew is led by NWL All-Star Elvin Liriano (4-1, 2.23, 54 strikeouts), closer Phil Maton (4-2, 1.39, 58 Ks) and Sam Holland (2-1, 1.59).
“That’s a tribute to Nelly (pitching coach Nelson Cruz) and the way the guys go about working their asses off,” Contreras said. “The first-pitch strike is the best pitch in baseball, and that’s what they’ve been doing. They pound the zone and go after hitters.”
One big positive for Tri-City is having a chance to win the NWL title at home, where the Dust Devils posted the best home record in the league at 25-13 during the regular season.
“That’s what everybody wants to do, win in front of the fans who supported them all year. It’s incredible to see fans here, staying late and cheering us on. It just shows a lot about the city and how they want to support these guys,” Contreras said. “I don’t really care who we play. Anybody can beat anybody at any time. Right now we’re peaking at the right time.”
Jack Millikin: 509-582-1406; email@example.com