In his 13 years as West Albany's head baseball coach, Don Lien has learned to accept a hard truth about playoff baseball: the closer you get to the state championship game, the more likely chance will play a role in determining the outcome.
Sometimes, he says, it's the difference between winning and losing.
"I think there are probably six teams in the mix that are pretty similar to each other," Lien said after Thursday's practice, the Bulldogs' last before traveling to Ashland for today's Class 5A state quarterfinal game, "and when you get that close, which team gets the breaks in the game is huge. I've had teams that I thought were going to go all the way and then a game has been decided by one break.
"I just think we're getting to the point where breaks determine the game."
Lien has at least two heartbreaking losses in recent years to point to as proof. In 2008, the Bulldogs fell 11-9 to Thurston in the 5A semifinals, and the following year they dropped another nail-biter to Thurston, 4-3, in the quarters (Thurston went on to win the title in '09 and lost to Ashland in the '08 championship game).
Lien hopes the breaks will fall West Albany's way today when it faces Ashland (25-1) at North Mountain Park. The game is scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m., with the winner advancing to face either Sherwood or Mountain View in the semifinals Tuesday.
Though both teams will be throwing their aces — Taylor Burner for West Albany (20-7) and Brady Thomas for Ashland — the game has all the makings of a slugfest. Ashland averages a whopping 10.5 runs per game (second in the state) and has scored 10 runs or more 14 times; West Albany averages 9 runs per game and has scored 10 runs or more 13 times.
"We have won games in all directions," Lien said, "hitting home runs, by doubles, and we're able to handle the small ball game. We're very versatile, probably one of the most versatile teams I've ever coached."
West Albany is led by three first-team all-Mid Willamette Conference picks, including Burner, the league's player of the year. The 5-foot-11 lefty throws a fastball in the mid-80s, according to Lien, and is comfortable with three pitches. It's a combination that's worked well for the senior — he's 9-2 with a 1.69 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 62 innings.
Burner, along with fellow MWC first-teamers Jackson Ruckert and Nick Lebengood, has also been a beast at the plate. He's batting .541 with eight homers and 42 RBIs. Ruckert is a .401 batter with two homers and four triples, and Lebengood bats .452 with four homers.
The Bulldogs, like the Grizzlies, showed off their offensive firepower in a first-round win Wednesday, creaming Hood River Valley 12-5 at Goss Stadium. Ashland beat The Dalles Wahtonka 13-8. The Bulldogs crunched five extra-base hits, the Grizzlies four.
"We both saved our aces to come at each other," Lien said. "It might come down to whose ace stays on the mound longer."
Ashland coach Don Senestraro was able to save Thomas (8-0) for today's game, opting on Wednesday to go from starter Max Anderson to reliever Christian Morrison even after The Dalles Wahtonka scored six runs in the fourth to tie that game at 8-all.
Senestraro didn't see that as a risky move, but in Corvallis, Lien knew he was taking a chance by starting junior Nolan Burright instead of Burner against Hood River Valley. It appeared to backfire when the Eagles scored three runs in the second to go ahead 3-1, but the Bulldogs scored three in the bottom of the inning and five in the fifth to win going away.
Can they put up those kind of numbers against the 6-foot-5 Thomas?
"I'll be honest, we know nothing other than a YouTube video that we've seen on him," Lien said. "But really, our nemesis is usually internal. Our guys have a great demeanor right now and I don't expect that to change (today). But our focus is on us. The opponent is a factor that we can't control.
"We haven't peaked, but we're playing very confident and we have a good team chemistry going right now, and that is valuable going into the playoffs. Our kids love to compete, and "… they're excited about coming to Ashland to play a good baseball team. You've got to beat the best to be the best."
Joe Zavala can be reached at email@example.com