The Eugene Emeralds’ playoff hopes hinged upon one game. Win, and they capitalize on their Northwest League-record 14-game win streak from earlier in the season and book their ticket to the postseason. Lose while the Vancouver Canadians win, and their 3-9 record in the previous 12 games would have squandered what was once a six-game lead over their northerly rivals.
The Emeralds were set to host the Everett AquaSox at PK Park Monday night, who were in last place in the Northwest League’s West Division and out of the playoff race. Because of this, the AquaSox chose to sit scheduled starter Jose Campos to rest him for the first game of the season’s second half and replaced him with left-hander Jordan Shipers.
Everett scored its first run of the game in the top of the first inning against Emeralds starter Juan Herrera. With leadoff batter Jarrett Burgess on second base after a leadoff single and a passed ball, AquaSox right fielder Mario Yepez hit a fly ball to the left-center-field gap, between Emeralds left fielder Mykal Stokes and center fielder Donavan Tate. Tate called Stokes off for the fly ball, but neither caught it as the ball bounced between them and Yepez recorded what was ruled an RBI triple.
“When he calls it, he usually gets it. He called it, so I let it go,” Stokes said. “My thought process was ‘We’ve got to get back.’ One run early in the game, we’ve still got to fight and come back.”
The Emeralds stranded the bases loaded in the bottom of the first inning when first baseman Zach Kometani hit into a double play with one out after the Emeralds began with two hits in the inning. Eugene would not record another hit until the eighth inning.
Everett loaded the bases against Herrera in the second inning with one out, prompting first-year Emeralds manager Pat Murphy to warm up reliever Will Scott in the bullpen. In the meantime, Emeralds shortstop Jace Peterson made a miraculous barehanded sliding catch of a Burgess popup along the third-base line to record the second out of the inning. Herrera then got AquaSox second baseman Patrick Brady to fly out to Tate to end the inning.
When he was sent to warm up, Scott’s thinking was simple: “Oh man, just go in, throw strikes, be aggressive, challenge hitters, make them beat me — and it worked.”
The AquaSox added a run in the third inning when Emeralds third baseman Jorge Minyety short-hopped a throw to first baseman Zach Kometani with two outs, allowing Everett designated hitter James Wood to score from third base on the error.
Herrera was lifted after the third inning, giving up two runs (one earned) on three hits with three walks and three strikeouts.
The Emeralds got a run back in the bottom of the inning when AquaSox starter Jordan Shipers walked four consecutive Emeralds — throwing 15 straight balls at one point — to force in a run with one out.
“I wasn’t really going to swing at anything unless it was a pitch I could really handle because I knew he wasn’t throwing strikes,” Kometani said. “He got me to two strikes and I fought off two balls and just battled, and he threw me a fourth ball and it was kind of a relief.”
Designated hitter Mike Gallic then hit a double play on the first pitch of the next at-bat — a “cardinal sin” according to Kometani — ending the Emeralds’ potential big inning.
“You can’t stay mad … at some kid from Marist College, after four walks in a row, swinging at the first pitch,” Murphy said. “If I had a stun gun, I might have stunned him on the way to first. But you can’t stay mad at those guys long.”
Shipers and Everett reliever Bryan Leigh combined to walk the bases loaded again in the fourth inning, but Tate hit into a fielders’ choice to end the inning and strand three runners again.
After the fourth inning, with the score in Eugene 2-1 in favor of Everett, the score from the third inning of Vancouver’s game against the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes was shown on the big screen, with the Canadians holding a 2-0 lead. That was the last update in that game’s score in PK Park until the Emeralds’ game was finished.
The AquaSox tacked on another preventable run in the sixth inning off Scott. After Everett third baseman Ramon Morla reached on a two-out walk, he scored from first base on a bloop single that fell in just in front of Emeralds right fielder Lee Orr, who did not dive or lunge for the ball. Scott went three innings, giving up one run on a single hit and walk, striking out three.
“Our defense has just continually let us down, let us down tonight,” Murphy said. “That game’s over, it’s two to nothing us, with the offensive ineptness.”
Once Scott was lifted for Emeralds reliever Chris Wilkes, he took on the role of cheerleader in the Emeralds dugout.
“Just trying to keep my teammates in the game, telling them never to give up, keeping fighting,” Scott said. “We’ve been down before and we’ve come back, and I was hoping we’ll come back.”
Everett scored again in the seventh inning off Wilkes. Brady hit a single up the middle with one out in the inning before stealing second base on a call that could have gone either way for the Emeralds. Brady was then driven in by Yepez, who hit another single up the middle to give the AquaSox a 4-1 lead.
Emeralds pitcher Colin Rea didn’t appear in the game, as he was scheduled to start the next night, but he was attuned to how the team was getting nervous in the later innings.
“I think we all were,” Rea said. “We were kind of getting anxious too at the end.”
Eugene tallied its second run in the eighth inning when Orr scored on a wild pitch, but then Gallic was stranded at third base by second baseman Travis Whitmore to end the inning.
The Emeralds were unable to score in the final frame, but closer Kevin Quackenbush pitched a final inning in Eugene before he and Gallic were called up to Single-A Fort Wayne after the game. The 2011 eighth-round pick of the San Diego Padres from the University of South Florida gave up a hit and a strikeout in the top of the ninth inning.
Before knowing the result of the game between the Canadians and the Volcanoes, Murphy said, “I feel good about it, and I hope the club feels good about it. I’m proud of our guys at the end of the game. We didn’t quit, but you’re asking some guys to do some things they’re not capable of at this point in their careers, and I’m not used to that.”
The Emeralds had ample opportunity to score against the AquaSox, registering 10 walks in the game — nine in the first four innings including four in a row in the fourth — and stranding the bases loaded three different times, but couldn’t make up for the four preventable runs they allowed in their defeat.
“I know you’re not going to find a six-stolen base game where the team only scored one run (which the Emeralds did Sunday), and you’re not going to find a 10-walk game where the team scored two runs,” Murphy said. “So we’re breaking records left and right.”
Once the game in Eugene was complete, the score from Vancouver was broadcast on the screen in center field: 10-5 Salem-Keizer in the bottom of the eighth inning. The Canadians scored a run to narrow the score to 10-6, which is where it remained, giving the Emeralds a playoff spot.
“The fact is, we won the first half,” Murphy said. “You’ve got to take the good with the bad and I’ve got to accept that we played better than everybody else in the first half as a whole.”
The Emeralds found a way to win, even when they weren’t firing on all cylinders, representative of their entire first half of the season. Their .240 batting average was seventh in the NWL in the first half and they were second in runners left on base with 288 in 37 games.
“We wanted to win, go out with a bang, go inside and celebrate. Luckily, Salem did come through and win,” Stokes said. “It was a relief knowing that we clinched first half of the playoffs. It was just a great feeling.”