A change of pace today on A Life of Knuckleballs… Instead of big-league musings, we’ve got some minor-league ball for you.
In Northwest League (Short-Season Single-A) action, the first half of the season wrapped up on July 21, with the first-half pennants in both divisions being decided in the final moments.
In the South Division, the Hillsboro Hops (affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks) and the Boise Hawks (Chicago Cubs) battled until the penultimate day before the first-half championship was won. On July 20, Hillsboro took on the Emeralds in Eugene, OR, and scored the winning run in the top of the ninth inning to pull out a 3-2 victory. Half an hour later, Boise dropped a 6-1 home decision against the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, clinching the first-half championship for Hillsboro.
While the Hillsboro-Eugene tilt was decided in the ninth inning, the winning rally was hardly dramatic. The Hops’ victory was made possible when, with runners on first and third with none out, Eugene opted not to play the infield in. A routine grounder to second base by Hops third baseman George Roberts, with the Emeralds playing at normal depth, drove in the tie-breaking run and gave Hillsboro the pennant-clinching 3-2 decision.
The Hops went on to lose 13-7 to Eugene the following day – in what was a meaningless contest for them – to finish the first half with a 22-16 record. Boise, with a 7-6 win over Salem-Keizer, also finished with a 22-16 mark. However, with the Hops owning the tie-breaker, it was Hillsboro clinching the first-half pennant in just their second season in the Northwest League. Prior to the 2013 season, the franchise was located in Yakima, WA, and was known as the Yakima Bears.
For Boise, an early-season funk proved to be costly, even though its 15-5 record in July allowed them to end the first 38 games of the schedule with the same record as Hillsboro. After opening the season with three straight victories and a 4-1 record, the Hawks, who made it to the Northwest League finals in each of the last two seasons, proceeded to drop seven in a row before rebounding once the calendar turned to July.
First-half standings, Northwest League South Division:
x-Hillsboro (ARI) 22-16 –
Boise (CHC) 22-16 –
Salem-Keizer (SF) 18-20 4
Eugene (SD) 15-23 7
x-won first-half championship due to tie-breaker
Over in the North Division, it was essentially the same story, with a second-place club stumbling out of the gate before a furious rally at the end proved futile.
The Vancouver Canadians (affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays) were 5.5 games back of the Spokane Indians (Texas Rangers) heading into July. However, the Canadians made it close as they were arguably the hottest team during the final week of the first half, led by centerfielder and leadoff man Roemon Fields, who stole 28 bases to establish a club record for a full season . Vancouver outscored its opposition 66-30 and won six of its final seven games, including a 10-6 triumph over the Tri-City Dust Devils in a day game at Gesa Stadium in Pasco, WA, on July 21, the final day of the first half.
That final victory, which saw ace right-hander Miguel Castro improve to 5-2 and 18-year-old shortstop Franklin Barreto drive in three runs and cross home plate twice, allowed the Canadians to finish the first half with a 25-13 record, a half-game ahead of Spokane going into the Indians’ contest that same night.
Unfortunately for Vancouver, the Indians owned the tie-breaker thanks to a 4-2 head-to-head record, meaning if they won their night game they would finish 25-13 as well to clinch the first-half pennant in the North Division.
Going into that finale, the Indians had lost five of their last seven, but Spokane left-hander Derek Thompson ensured there would be no collapse for his club. The 21-year-old Thompson, who was selected by the Texas Rangers in the 12th round of the 2013 MLB amateur draft, allowed only three hits over seven innings with 10 strikeouts, pitching the Indians to a 3-0 victory over the Everett AquaSox and giving the North Division’s first-half flag to Spokane.
For Vancouver, the three-time defending Northwest League champions, finishing just short in the first half is nothing new. Back in 2011, the Canadians also lost the first-half pennant due to a tie-breaker, before winning the second half en route to the first of three consecutive league titles. In 2012 and 2013, the Canadians also made the playoffs by winning the second-half pennant. So, it will be interesting to see how they fare in the second half of the 2014 Northwest League season.
First-half standings, Northwest League North Division:
x-Spokane (TEX) 25-13 –
Vancouver (TOR) 25-13 –
Tri-City (COL) 14-24 11
Everett (SEA) 11-27 14
x-won first-half championship due to tie-breaker
 The Vancouver club record over a full 76-game schedule had been 25, established in 2007 by Michael Richard in his lone season with the Canadians. Richard swiped those bases while playing in 61 games with Vancouver in his first professional season after being selected in the 11th round of the MLB amateur draft that June by the Oakland Athletics, then the parent club of the Canadians. Fields, however, shattered that record in the first half alone.