The Tri-City Dust Devils pitching staff flirted with disaster during Friday’s Game 2 of the Northwest League championship in front of 1,497 fans at Gesa Stadium.
Facing a Hillsboro Hops team eager to celebrate a second-consecutive NWL championship, the Dust Devils pitchers swayed a bit but never toppled, holding on for a 4-2 Tri-City win that evened the series at one game apiece.
“To come back after losing (Thursday in Hillsboro), I told the guys this doesn’t surprise me at all,” Tri-City manager Anthony Contreras said. “It’s the way we’ve been winning all year. We don’t panic, and we came back like we always do. We’ve been working our butts off to get to this point and improve our game.
“We’re showing it now in the biggest way possible.”
Game 3, which will decide the 2015 NWL champion, will be held at 7:15 p.m. Sunday at Gesa Stadium.
Justin Pacchioli broke a 2-2 tie for Tri-City, bouncing a 1-0 pitch from Hillsboro reliever Breckin Williams up the middle with two outs in the bottom of the seventh to drive in Nick Vilter.
Nick Vilter made it 4-2 in the bottom of the eighth with an RBI single off Brody Greer. Vilter finished 2-for-4 with two runs and two RBIs.
The Hops jumped on Dust Devils starter Emmanuel Ramirez early, as Zach Nehrir drew a leadoff walk, stole second and scored on a one-out double by Grant Heyman. Heyman then stole third and scored on a sharp two-out single to center by Alexis Olmeda to put Hillsboro up 2-0.
Tri-City responded quickly, however, getting a run back in the bottom half of the first. Justin Pacchioli walked on five pitches from Hops starter Cody Reed and took second on a one-out sacrifice grounder from Ty France. After taking third on a wild pitch, Henry Charles continued his hot playoff hitting, lining a double off the center field wall to score Pacchioli and cut Hillsboro’s lead to 2-1.
“A lot of these guys haven’t played in a big game like this before, so to come out like this when the crowd is going crazy with something big on the line like this speaks about their character and their work ethic,” Contreras said. “I’m really proud of them.”
Charles went 2-for-4 to improve his playoff batting average to .474 (9-for-19) with four doubles in four games.
The Hops had a chance do do some more damage in the top of the fifth. Dust Devils reliever Elvin Liriano gave up a leadoff triple to Nehrir, but he — and a drawn-in infield — buckled down to retire the next three batters in order to leave Nehrir stranded at third.
“This pitching staff has done that all year, and big time at the end of the year going into the playoffs,” Contreras said. “They’re holding their own with nerves of steel, pounding the zone and getting ahead of the hitters. And they’re relying on their defense, one of the best I’ve seen at this level.”
The Dust Devils evened things up in the bottom of the fifth inning when Nick Vilter led off the inning with a solo home run to left field off Reed, connecting on an 0-1 fastball.
“I was just looking for a good pitch to hit, and I got it. I put it where it should go,” Vilter said.
Contreras said he was especially pleased to see Vilter come through in such a big way.
“That (home run) gave me the biggest chills of the game seeing him do that,” Contreras said. “Nick has been one of the hardest workers on the team. He’s not getting all the playing time that others get, but he’s as professional as can be.
“He’s also been working hard to try to pull the ball and keep it straight. If this was two weeks ago, that ball hooks foul.”
Liriano walked two batters with one out in the sixth and gave way to Wilson Santos, who struck out the next two batters to end the inning. Santos set down eight batters in a row before Phil Maton earned the save in the ninth.
“My mentality when I came in with two men on and one out was, ‘Ground ball, ground ball,’ ” Santos said through interpreter (and pitching coach) Nelson Cruz. “But when I got two strikes on them, I went for the punch out.”
Maton had to sweat a little bit, too, giving up a leadoff double to Stephen Dezzi in the ninth before retiring the next three in order to earn the save.
“It’s a really good team we’re playing. They do all the little things right. they play solid defense. They throw strikes. They execute. They’re fundamentally sound. You really have to be playing your best baseball in order to beat them,” Hillsboro manager Shelley Duncan said. “We made a couple mistakes in situational hitting and threw a couple bad pitches here and there. They took advantage of that.
“That’s what happens when you play good teams.”
Ramirez, the Tri-City starter, got an early shower after giving up two runs on two hits and a pair of walks in the first inning. He threw 28 pitches, 14 of them for strikes before being replaced by Brett Kennedy in the second inning.
Ramirez was one of the Dust Devils’ best pitchers over the final two weeks of the regular season, going 2-0 with a 1.13 ERA in 16 innings, including a 10-strikeout performance in a 9-2 win over Spokane to end the regular season.
The top of the seventh was all about Tri-City SS Peter Van Gansen. The 2015 Big West Defensive Player of the Year out of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo made an over-the-shoulder running catch on Nehrir’s leadoff pop fly. The next batter, Dansby Swanson, hit a grounder deep into the hole at short, but Van Gansen came up firing to get Swanson by a half-step. Then Van Gansen made another tough play, ranging to his left to field Heyman’s grounder and throwing across his body to make the play at first.
Hillsboro’s only NWL title came last year, when the Hops beat Vancouver in the second year of the franchise. ... Tri-City has won NWL championships with three different teams — the Tri-City Atoms (1965-66, 1968), the Tri-City Padres (1971) and the Tri-Cities Triplets (1984). The Dust Devils have made three trips to the NWL championship series (2007, 2009, 2011) but have never won.