Third-ranked Grizzlies begin state playoff quest

Two years ago, a certain Ashland High slugger who's now firing fastballs for Oregon State caught a break at just the right time, and turned a fat pitch into a season-saving home run.

Last year, the Grizzlies watched helplessly as Corvallis batters again and again squeezed singles through every hole in Ashland's water-tight infield while building an early lead that held up in the state semifinals.

So while talent and chemistry are crucial, and standout pitching essential, Ashland baseball coach Don Senestraro, in all his been-there-done-that glory, insists that there's yet another often overlooked factor that may trump all of the above once the also-rans are dismissed and the playoffs begin.

"I've done this for six years now, been to the semifinals three times in a row and I know that not only do you have to be good, you have to be lucky," Senestraro said prior to Friday's practice. "We're going to play as hard as we can and hopefully the ball bounces our way this year. I think we're good enough to do good things, but it takes a lot of luck, too."

The third-ranked Grizzlies (21-5) begin their quest for a second state title in three years Tuesday, when seventh-ranked Bend (16-11) pays a visit to North Mountain Park for a second-round Class 5A state playoff game. Ashland, the top seed from the Southern Sky Conference, had its 17-game winning streak snapped at No. 5 Sprinfield last week, while the Lava Bears, the No. 3 team out of the Intermountain Conference, are coming off a 16-10 first-round win over Liberty.

The Ashland-Bend winner will play either sixth-ranked Lebanon or 10th-ranked Thurston, the team Ashland beat in the '08 state championship game, in Friday's quarterfinal round.

In other second-round action Tuesday, Crater travels to face Cleveland; Madras will be at fourth-ranked Sherwood; Klamath Union will host eighth-ranked Wilsonville; top-ranked Corvallis will host North Eugene; West Albany will travel to face second-ranked Pendleton; and fifth-ranked Springfield will host Madison.

Ashland was rarely challenged during its 16-0 SSC campaign, but took one on the chin Tuesday at Springfield — the Millers overcame an early 3-0 deficit to hand the Grizzlies their first loss since April 3.

The Grizzlies say that that loss, their first this season against a 5A team, served as a timely wake-up call, and a reminder that they'll have to put together a complete game in order to beat the playoff-caliber teams that they'll soon be facing.

"I don't think we played our best ball; I definitely didn't pitch very well, and that won't happen again," said Ashland senior pitcher Ian Kendall, who has a 0.31 ERA with 77 strikeouts in 45 innings of work. "Springfield's a good team, but I definitely think we should have won that game."

Kendall may be the biggest piece of Ashland's playoff puzzle. The hard-throwing righty is batting .366, leads the team in home runs (6) and is tied with Luke Baldrica for the team lead in RBIs (27).

Baldrica was also expected to give the Grizzlies another big bat in the postseason, but he's battling a laundry list of injuries (quad pull, finger ligament strain, bad back) and his status for Tuesday's game — and beyond — is uncertain.

It would be a costly loss. Baldrica, Ashland's No. 5 hitter, leads the team with a .519 batting average and .833 slugging percentage and plays a solid center field.

"How do you replace a (.519) hitter with the best speed on the team and senior leadership?," Senestraro asked. "That's hard to do. He's a big part of the team, but right now we have to play like he's not going to be here because there are just too many question marks."

Even without Baldrica the Grizzlies have plenty of run-scoring potential. Leadoff hitter Nick Hall is batting .360 with two homers and two triples, Billy Hansen is batting .443 with a .646 slugging percentage and Lucas Stone is batting .319 with 23 RBIs.

On the mound, Stone (7-1) and Kendall (7-2) form one of the most lethal one-two punches in the state, and Brady Thomas (6-1) will likely be the team's go-to relief pitcher.

Stone doesn't throw as hard as Kendall — only a handful of pitchers in the state can match Kendall's 95 mph fastball — but has been nearly as dominant anyway. Stone has 55 strikeouts, eight walks and is carrying a 1.30 ERA through 481/3 innings.

Defensively, the Grizzlies are good where it counts. The middle infield, with Hall at shortstop and Ethan Schlecht at second, is adept at turning double plays, and the outfield, even without Baldrica, covers a lot of ground.

Heading into the second round, the Grizzlies say that their magic number is five. That doesn't refer to how many wins they need in order to capture another title (four) or the number of innings Senestraro would like to get out of his starting pitcher (seven). It refers to the number of runs that they believe will give them what they want — advancement.

"I think with the top of our order and the middle of our order," Hall said, "if we do what we've been doing all year and we get some key hits from the bottom of the order that combination should hold up, especially with our pitching."

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