IMC baseball: Two teams, one goal

Hermiston's Bill Frost tags the bag ahead of Pendleton's Ryan Hamilton in an Intermountain Conference game last season in Hermiston. Both teams have high hopes for this season and begin play this week.<br><I>EO file photo

Bulldogs hit restart button By MATT ENTRUP

The East Oregonian

When Brent Mattson took over as head coach for a Hermiston baseball team that went 3-11 in Intermountain Conference play the prior season, he saw a program in need of a fresh start.

"Just talking to the boys, they did have that feeling like (2008) was a lost year and so this year's seniors don't want to go out like that," said Mattson, who is a high school head coach for the first time in his career after serving as an assistant at Kennewick High for six seasons. Kennewick won a state title in Washington last season.

Mattson came in and introduced some new elements to their game that he felt were lacking and the players have responded.

"This year we're scrimmaging a lot more against each other, it feels like we're getting more game prepared," senior center fielder Tyler Green said. "Last year was like screw-around sessions. We didn't really work hard.

"(Mattson) is a fun guy. He seems like he knows a lot about baseball. His team last year won state so a lot of people are buying into him, I think just because of that fact."

Senior third baseman and right-handed pitcher Juan Esparza said Mattson has the team running more aggressively on the base paths than they are used to and the change of pace has the entire team excited.

Green and Esparza are two of seven seniors on the varsity roster that will be looked to for leadership as the team tries to avoid another slow trudge through the IMC, which has upped its conference schedule from 14 to 21 games.

The Bulldogs return defensive starters at every outfield position, on the corners and behind the plate and Green said the team is a tightly knit group through their playing experiences together in other sports.

Those bonds have been strengthened during the winter months as baseball was never far from their minds.

Green said many members of the team had been coming to school early since football season ended to get in some throwing.

"It's something they would always tell us to do but people weren't really committed to it," Esparza said. "This year, the new coach, I think everybody's excited."

"We're more united this year, we're closer to each other," senior catcher Jose Rosales said, adding their time playing American Legion baseball over the summer really accelerated the process.

Hitting and defense were a common answer when asked to name a strength of this year's squad, leaving pitching as the biggest question mark.

Esparza, seniors Brad Irwin and Kyle Slupsky, juniors Tyler Andreson, Brad Morton and Travis Bratton are all listed as pitchers on the roster and will be looked at to provide innings, but the Dawgs are still looking to solidify their starting rotation and bullpen.

The fast maturation of sophomore lefty Jordan Beckley and righty Tim Rude would be huge boosts to that endeavor.

Rosales said both have the tools to be solid varsity pitchers and it will just be a matter of consistency and confidence as the season progresses.

The Bulldogs will play their first games at Post Falls, Idaho, on Friday in a doubleheader starting at 2:30 p.m.

Bucks set stage for an encore By JUSTIN CHARTREY

The East Oregonian

For the last two years, the Pendleton baseball team has been on the doorstep of the state title game, but both times the Bucks were turned away by eventual state champions.

Yet while some would assume he talent pool would have moved on with big names like Tucker Whitten, Kenny Melton, Trevor Smith, Taylor West and Alex Doherty, few clubs have reloaded as well as Greg Whitten's Bucks.

Already with a bevy of arms to take the hill, the Bucks could be even deeper this season. Isaac Henslee and Logan Whitten both have overcome injuries that did not allow them to play in the state playoffs during last year's semi-final run.

"We have some really good pitching and I think we're going thrive on that," said Whitten, who will also play third base and add some thunder to the lineup. "The first three guys are pretty decent and that's going to help us."

Whitten was consistent toeing the rubber for the Bucks last year before getting sidelined with tendonitis. But a new workout regiment of rubber band work and more icing will hopefully keep him healthy. Henslee was untouchable at times for the Bucks, throwing big-time heat and a knee-bending breaking ball.

After him, coach Whitten is anxious to see the way seniors Dan Fisher and Casey Dietz handle more prominent roles on the pitching staff.

Both stepped in nicely during the summer legion season and both will be counted on to fill the third starting spot with each IMC series pushed from two to three games.

"We have to have people step up to the three spot," Henslee said. "In that third game we're going to need pitching, so some younger guys will have to step it up. John Kline will step up, Dan Fisher, we have a lot of guys who can make that jump."

Kline could also fight for a spot in the entirely new-look outfield for the Bucks. While the infield will be totally intact, Pendleton graduated their starting outfield of Doherty, Codi Warner and Jackson Huth.

"We have some guys with some big holes to fill," coach Whitten said. "We have a ton of seniors and a few younger guys with about two or three guys at each position. The competition is pretty stiff."

With everything wide open, a name that pops up among players like Whitten, Fisher and senior shortstop Gabe Rowe is sophomore Jeff Eickstaedt. But beyond him are multiple options like seniors John Mitchell and Eric Crawford and underclassmen like Kline and Josh Ernst - who could also see time at third base along with Torin Garza when Whitten is on the mound.

"We're going to have some people step up in the outfield and whoever it is going to have a good year for us," Rowe said. "We have a couple guys at each position that look like they could play."

Even the returning infield could be pushed, according to Whitten. Entrenched early are Rowe and Fisher as seniors, while Jake Talbot and Dannon Baker could be pushed by up-and-coming younger players.

The consensus, though, is that state playoffs is once again attainable for the Bucks and they could once again run the IMC with a healthy stable of hitters.

"Gabe will smash, Logan will smash and Dannon Baker is a hell of a hitter," Henslee said. "We have good hitters this year and we're young. If we can get the bats going hopefully we can get right back to (the playoffs)."

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