Pilots aim for repeat

They haven't lost a state tournament elimination game in legion ball or high school ball since May of 2007. So confidence shouldn't be a problem for the Ashland Pilots as they prepare to defend their American Legion A state title.

"It's a different group of guys than last year," said leadoff hitter Hayden Miller, whose batting .526, "but we've got as good a chance if not better to win it again this year."

The Pilots will find out for sure soon enough. They play Roseburg Pepsi at noon Friday in one of four first-round games at Coos Bay. Also Friday: the Grants Pass Miners face Pendleton at 9 a.m.; the North Medford Mavericks take on Wilson Jakes Crawfish at — p.m.; and the Franklin Willoughby Sonics play host North Coos at 6 p.m.

The eight-team, double-elimination tournament wraps up Tuesday. All games will be played at North Bend High's Clyde Allen Field.

Ashland (29-8) enters the tournament on a hot streak, having won 13 of its last 15 games, 15 of 17 if you count a pair of forfeits by Grants Pass. Ashland finished second place in Area 4 to North Medford (36-14), which won the state tournament in 2006.

The Pilots' offense, which is averaging nine runs per game, is led by Miller, Garrett Tygerson, Ian Kendall and Nick Hall, along with not-so-secret weapon Max Gordon, who has played four games with the Pilots since graduating from Ashland High in June.

Tygerson, who bats cleanup, leads the team with 64 RBIs thanks in part to seven home runs, a team-best 16 doubles and a .942 slugging percentage. Kendall, who exploded onto the scene during last year's state tournament, is batting .481 with team highs in both home runs (10) and slugging percentage (.990). Hall is batting .427 and is tied with Kendall for the team lead in runs scored (52).

The addition of Gordon should boost an Ashland offense that enters the postseason without two key contributors, Keali Cecil and Luke Baldrica (both suffered broken ankles late in the season). Gordon, a versatile lefty, batted leadoff for Ashland High's state championship team before spending most of the summer playing in a men's league in White City. In his abbreviated Pilots season he came through with eight hits in just 11 at-bats, including a 4-for-4, five RBI performance in a state play-in game against North Eugene on Sunday.

"Even though we asked (Gordon) to hit for some power (Sunday), when we needed it, in the right situation, he lays that bunt down the third-base line and then lights everything up for us again," Ashland head coach Royce Miller said. "He has all kinds of speed and aggressiveness on the bases, too, so he adds probably four different major phases to our game that we don't have without him in the lineup."

Gordon's ability to bunt could come into play at key moments in the postseason, too, as coach Miller hinted that the Pilots won't hesitate to employ small ball tactics.

"These guys are starting to believe in the bunting a little bit, that in big games against good teams that's a way you can start breaking things down," he said.

On the mound, the Pilots will lean against one of the deeper pitching staffs in the state. Led by ace Tygerson, Ashland has five pitchers that are likely to see action, and 11 Pilots pitched at least one inning during the regular season.

Tygerson is the most polished. Equipped with a fastball that's been clocked at 85 mph, the senior-to-be is 8-0 with a 1.08 ERA in a team-high 58 1-3 innings pitched. He's averaging 7.2 strikeouts per game, second on the team to Kendall, who averages 11.4 Ks per outing. Kendall, who can throw in the 90s, is limited only by his control. The junior-to-be is 2-0 with a 1.56 ERA in 31 1-3 innings, but rarely throws more than three innings at a time.

Luke Stone, Brady Thomas and Miller also have pitched well. Stone, who's second on the team in innings pitched (46), is 8-2 with a 3.50 ERA, Thomas is 4-2 with a 3.22 ERA and Miller is 1-0 with a 1.95 ERA.

Hall, the Pilots' starting shortstop, doesn't believe that the pitchers need to dominate in order for Ashland to be successful.

"I think pitchers need to throw strikes, defenders need to play good, solid defense and I think our hitting will take care of itself," he said.

Roseburg, like Ashland, enters state on a high note after beating North Medford 4-2 in a seeding game Sunday. The top-seeded Pepsi used three pitchers to hold the Mavericks to four hits and benefited from a throwing error that led to two runs.

Ashland hasn't played Roseburg this season, but expects a stiff test.

"They beat North Medford, and anyone who can play with North Medford is a solid team," Hall said. "Any team going to state at this level has a chance to win. We're just looking to play good, solid baseball and we'll have a shot."

As is always the case near the Oregon coast, Ashland will also be competing against the wind. The gusts were even the subject of the Pilots' postpractice team meeting Wednesday, as coaches took turns going over priority calls on fly balls.

Although the wind isn't expected to be too shifty over the weekend, 45 mph gusts are forecast for Monday evening, just in time for the semifinals.

"You just kind of have to judge it before the game," Hayden Miller said. "Last time I went over there, it was like a pop up to short would end up at the warning track. And the year before when we went over there it was like a pop up to left field would end up at third base, so it's all over the place."

Sports editor can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or joe.

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