Grizzlies look to take advantage of speed on base paths

The Ashland Grizzlies have played only three nonconference games, and are still missing a key piece to their 2011 puzzle, but if conclusions can be drawn this early in the season consider this one: the Grizzlies can find the gaps, and run.

They've done plenty of both so far, which should not come as a surprise to anyone who followed Ashland's single-A American Legion team last summer. The Pilots batted .409 as a team and scored 62 runs on 79 hits while demolishing every team in their path at the Northwest Regional Championships.

Most of the players who led those Pilots have picked up right where they left off with the Grizzlies. Ashland has scored 43 runs in three blowout victories heading into Friday's home game against Springfield.

Head coach Don Senestraro says it's too early to tell if Ashland will end up being a better offensive team than the Grizz squad that won the 2008 state championship (7.6 runs per game), or the one that placed second last season (7.1 rpg). But he's already seen enough to label this year's Grizzlies faster on the base paths than both those teams. And Senestraro doesn't plan on wasting it.

"You know, I think we'll hit-and-run more, and steal more — more than in the past because I've never had this luxury," said Senestraro, who took over the program in 2005. "I think we've hit-and-run three or four times in three games already. First of all, it's a pretty good contact hitting team, and even if we do swing and miss I think our (base-runners) have a pretty good chance of making it.

"I think our home run numbers will be down, but doubles and triples will be up, because our speed is up. We've got a lot of guys that can run and run well."

That starts at the top. Sophomore outfielder Taylor Humphrey, a slot receiver and cornerback for the Ashland football team, bats leadoff and junior first baseman Billy Hansen, the Pilots' MVP at regionals, is No. 2 in the order. The Grizzlies are banking that Humphrey and Hansen, who batted .542 at regionals, will consistently set the table for junior Ethan Schlecht, who Senestraro calls the team's best pure hitter, and cleanup hitter Brent Hegdahl, one of the Grizzlies' few legitimate home run threats.

Hansen and Schlecht combined to hit five home runs last season, one less than the team's long ball leader, Ian Kendall. But what the Grizzlies lack in power they'll try to make up for in old fashioned consistency. That, so far, is materializing in the form of line drives into the gaps.

In their season-opening win over Henley eight of the Grizzlies' 14 hits were doubles, powering them to a 14-4 win. Four days later, Ashland was at it again, smacking four doubles in the first game and three doubles and a triple in the second game during a lopsided sweep (13-1 and 16-3) of Mountain View.

"I really think we're a better contact-hitting team," Senestraro said. "We maybe don't have the sheer power of the (Charlie and Lewis) Sebrells or the (Garrett) Tygersons and the players of the past, but these guys are going to hit the ball, and they can hit it to the fence. We have some great at-bats "… because they have a good idea of the strike zone and they swing at great pitches."

Grizz notes: The Grizzlies will be returning to Ashland tonight after spending most of the week in Redding, Calif., practicing at the Big League Dreams Park. Traditionally, Ashland heads to Arizona over spring break, but this year Senestraro decided to stay a little closer to home while still dodging the weather. The Grizzlies, who stayed together in a rented house, had an intrasquad home run derby competition at the Fenway Park replica field Wednesday. The winner was Schlecht with four homers.

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