UPDATE AT THE END
Lefty Gomez of the New York Yankees once said, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” That phrase has applied throughout sports history, but perhaps nowhere more pertinent than the 2018 Eugene Emeralds. The Emeralds are the Short Season Class A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs in the Northwest League which has been in operation since 1955.
I happen to live in Eugene Oregon which brings the story close to home, but it’s implications to baseball, in general, go far beyond Lane County, Oregon.
Because the season is only 76 games, it is divided into a first and second half and with 8 teams a North and South division. The playoff format is as follows: The winner of the first half of each division plays in the regional round, with the winners advancing to the championship series. In the case that the second half winner is the same as the first half winner, the second place 2nd half team plays the first/second-half winner. After all, what chance would they stand?
Which brings us to this plucky band of Eugene Emeralds. Short season baseball is tricky, as often top college draft picks come to the league but only for a handful of games to get acclimated to professional baseball in general before moving up. Otherwise, the teams are filled with international signings, undrafted free agents, and possibly players seeking out their final chances in the game. Earlier this season, my wife and I had the pleasure of meeting some players at a BBQ, including 1B Tyler Durna who graduated from our shared alma mater of UC San Diego.
In that regard, the first half and second half format makes sense – as a 2nd half team is often a very different makeup from the first half. The Cubs first-round draft pick this year, for example, Nico Hoerner, gained just 22 AB’s in 7 games here in Eugene, but I was fortunate enough to see his first professional home run.
The Cubs have only been affiliated with Eugene since 2015, and in 2016 the Emeralds won their first Northwest League Championship since 1975 – just a month or so before the Cubs broke their own Championship drought of 108 years. That team finished with a record of 54-22 which included a remarkable 15 game win streak. They seemed destined to win it all from the start. In 2017, the Emeralds went 39-37 and lost in the Championship Series 3-1. In 2018 they got a new manager and high hopes to continue the winning tradition.
Needless to say, it did not go well. In the first half, the Emeralds went a league-worst 14-24. In the second half though, they improved to 17-21 which was good enough for second place in the South Division. Overall record of 31-45. Yet that second half record was 1 game ahead of Salem-Keizer and 10 games behind first-place Hillsboro who went 27-11 after going 24-14 in the first half.
For those scoring at home, the Hillsboro Hops finished 20 games better than Eugene. The Emeralds didn’t win 3 games all season in 8 attempts. Because of the rules – the Emeralds went to the playoffs.
This is where this story of a bad-on-the-surface baseball team takes a turn. A lucky turn of events in the standings might have brought them here – but their skill has been on display since getting the opportunity.
After all, the rules, after all, are the same for all teams. Championships are won in the playoffs – not the regular season. Ask the 2001 Seattle Mariners about that – they of the best regular season record in MLB history and couldn’t even get to the World Series. Besides, how could a team that had nothing close to a winning record ever beat the leagues most dominant team? Baseball seasons are long and rarely produce Disney fairy-tale endings. The movies even changed how The Natural ends in the book(spoiler alert).
After all, for all the information statistics and records do give us a teams or players past performance – once the playoffs start none of that matters. The Eugene Emeralds took that exact mentality into the playoffs, and before you knew it they had erased the Hops regular-season mastery in two games. They won both 3-2 despite being no-hit through five innings in one game and scoring 3 runs on 4 hits in Game 2. Five Hillsboro errors also helped their cause.
Also on their side was the minor league quirk that though their opponent in the Championship Series would be Spokane (4th place 16-22 1st half, 22-16 1st place second half) couldn’t play at home. Thanks to the county fair that booked the home stadium, all 5 potential games of the Championship Series will be played in PK Park, home of the Eugene Emeralds. Eugene will be the visiting team on the scoreboard the first two games, but certainly, the crowd will not be cheering for the “home team” those first two games.
In Game 1, they squeaked out their 3rd straight 3-2 win thanks to an 8th inning home run before a 4-0 shellacking in Game 2 compared to previous wins this post-season. That puts them one win away from the championship. Ems Manager Steve Lerud had this to say: “The guys are enjoying this and we are going to keep playing loose,”. Can the Ems finish the job with three tries remaining and pull off the most unexpected playoff run since the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals? They won the World Series despite a regular season record of 83-78 and defeated the 82-80 NL West Champion Padres. They did have to beat the Mets in the NLCS who had the best record in baseball that season before defeating the Tigers in the World Series.
The theme of the 2018 Emeralds is” It All Starts Here.”. If the Emeralds can get a win in the next three games – it will also end here for the 2nd time in 3 seasons.
The Emeralds did in fact win Game 3 to sweep the playoffs and win the NWL Championship despite a losing record and one of the worst records of any professional team to win a championship.
They won it – of all things – on a balk. They entered the 9th inning down 2-1 before the Hops walked in a tying run. Then, with the bases loaded Spokane closer Emannuel Clase appeared to trip as he started to throw – a clear balk which advanced all of the runners including the winning run! The Emeralds stormed the field and they finished off a most improbable championship run – now the 2nd in 3 years for the Eugene Emeralds!