The boys of summer are back.
The members of this years Hillsboro Hops squad introduced themselves to the Portland area on Thursday during a media day event at Ron Tonkin Field. With the recent MLB amateur draft and travel to Hillsboro behind them, the Hops seemed eager to get the season going.
Luckily for them, they did not have a long wait.
Hillsboro, the Arizona Diamondbacks Class A short season affiliate, is kicking off its run of 76 games in 81 days on Friday evening against the AquaSox in Everett, Wash. After five games in Washington, the team returns to town Wednesday for its home opener, the start of an eight-game homestand that continues through June 25.
Hops general manager K.L. Wambacher is optimistic that this years team may have a little bit different look to it than last year, which was the organizations first in Hillsboro.
I think weve got more pop in the lineup. Weve just got some better bats, a little more power, Wombacher said. That was one area we really lacked, especially the first half of the year.
The Hops struggled through the first half of last season before making a run at the Northwest League playoffs during the second half. One of the few returners from last years team, catcher Elvin Soto, already has a playoff push on his mind and is ready to go after getting to catch some big-league pitchers in early spring training.
Im excited to come back to Hillsboro, said Soto, who also spent time training in the Dominican Republic since the Hops 2013 season ended. It was a good environment last year and it was fun, so it should be fun again.
A good crowd should be on hand to welcome him and the rest of the team back to Hillsboro on Wednesday, as all indicators point to interest in the team remaining high. Wombacher said that as of Thursday afternoon, a few general admission tickets for the opener remained available, that the organization has seen an increase in season ticket sales, and that sales of Hops merchandise have been trending up.
He felt that a quality team would continue to keep fans in the seats.
We had great crowds when we were awful in the first half of the season, Wombacher noted. We were really bad record-wise on the field, and it didnt deter anyone from coming out.
And then when we made a little run towards the end of the season, you just saw the enthusiasm level rise even more. If we can put a good product on the field where were competitive every night, I think it will just help us even more.
Along with Soto, the other familiar faces from last summer are outfielders Jordan Parr and Taylor Ratliff, infielder Cesar Carrasco, and pitchers Ben Eckels, Ryan Doran and Alex Byo.
At present, the squad is mostly loaded with domestic players but includes several from other countries. Pitcher Anderson Placido, infielder Pedro Ruiz and Carrasco all hail from the Dominican Republic, while Yorman Garcia is a native of Venezuela.
Among the newcomers, right-handed pitcher Brent Jones was the highest pick from this years draft allocated to Hillsboro by the Diamondbacks. The Cornell product was taken in the fourth round of last weeks draft. Fans of in-state college baseball might be interested to know that former Oregon State pitcher Scott Schultz recently joined the team.
Another player with an Oregon connection is outfielder Grant Heyman, who has taken a rather serpentine route to playing baseball in the state. After a one-year stint at Miami, the New Yorker played most recently at the College of Southern Nevada. He signed with Oregon State in last fall, but after being drafted in the eighth round by the Diamondbacks – and thinking he would wind up with Arizonas rookie affiliate in Missoula, Mont. – he will play ball in Hillsboro instead of in Corvallis.
Ive been to Portland a couple times, Heyman said. I knew a little bit about Portland, and I knew it was a nice area, so I was happy that I was coming here.
Count Parr as another Hop happy to be in Hillsboro. He spent the offseason back home in Chillicothe, Ill., doing some hunting and golfing, as well as working unloading boxes at a mall.
Im so thankful just to have another year to play professional baseball and another year to be in the Diamondbacks organization, said Parr, who hit the Hops first-ever home run at Ron Tonkin Field (then known as Hillsboro Ballpark) last June. The more your play, the more you go through as a professional athlete, I think it just gives you so much more to be thankful for.
Im just thrilled to be back here.