PILOT ROCK — Justin Willingham doesn’t remember where he was the last time Pilot Rock hosted a postseason baseball game.
That’s for good reason.
“I honestly have no idea,” the Pilot Rock senior first baseman said. “I was only three at the time.”
Fresh off the school’s first league title in nearly two decades, the No. 8 Rockets will host No. 9 Kennedy today at 1 p.m., breaking a home playoff drought dating back to 2000.
That year the Rockets finished runner-up to Gladstone.
“That’s been our goals since we (the seniors) were freshmen,” said Jacob Pierce, one of five senior Rocket starters. “We wanted to be the first to do it (since 2000) and that’s what we’ve done.”
Today’s game will be just the second state playoff game played by the Rockets since 2000. The other meeting came in 2013, during Willingham and Pierce’s sophomore seasons.
The Rockets (16-9) magical season has been steeped in clean defense and the consistency of senior arms Pierce and Mike Hiatt. They own the fifth best runs per game defense in Class 2A, allowing only 3.9 per game.
“Our defense and pitching keeps us in games,” Pierce said.
Hiatt will get the start on the mound for the Rockets. He threw five innings of four-hit ball in Saturday’s 6-4 district title victory over Dufur.
The home-game clinching victory was more about the offense, according to first-year coach Dan Ward.
Pilot Rock scored six runs (five earned) off of Trever Tibbets, the league’s most prolific pitcher.
“He’s the best guy we’ve seen all season, and we hit the snot out of him,” Ward said of the 12-hit performance. “They know that they can hit a really good pitcher. I think we’re at a good point. Hopefully we care that into the next few games.”
The Trojans (21-6) are a tough opening round draw. Kennedy finished second in Special District 2, placing behind state third-seed Regis. They’ve won five more games over the course of the regular season than Pilot Rock and own a superior run-differential.
Greg Whitten manned the dugout for the Rockets the last time a playoff game was played at Pilot Rock High. Since then, the long-time skipper has turned Pendleton into habitual postseason participants.
Fourteenth-seeded Pendleton (12-14) will make its 10th consecutive postseason appearance under Whitten today when they travel to third-seeded Corvallis for an opening round game for a 4:30 p.m. first pitch.
“We definitely have a special team this year that we haven’t had in past years,” said senior Alex O’Rourke. “The toughness of the team, especially at the end of the year, helped us pull through and get on a good streak going into the playoffs.”
The Buckaroos have yet to lose with O’Rourke in the Pendleton starting lineup since his return from injury. Pendleton concluded the season on a three-game win streak, its longest string of games without defeat all season.
“I don’t think there is any question that we’re peaking at the right time,” Whitten said. “We’re playing our best baseball right now heading into the playoffs. We’re definitely firing on all cylinders right now.”
Corvallis (21-6) has seemingly being doing the same since April 1. The Spartans are winners of 18 of 21 since the start of April, including a near perfect run through Mid-Willamette play that included only two hiccups coming to No. 10 Dallas.
The Spartans are not an unfamiliar foe for the Buckaroos. Pendleton played and defeated Corvallis in last year’s opening round and also ended their basketball season in March.
“They were a good team,” O’Rourke said of last year’s Spartan team. “They could hit the ball. They gave us a good run for our money last year.”
“I remember one of their hitters,” said junior pitcher Quinn Cockburn, who pitched in relief in the Buckaroos’ 7-5 win a year ago. “He took me over of the Dave’s (Chevron) sign.”
Cockburn is expected to get the start this time around for the Buckaroos. That’ll give him another crack at Derrick Porter, the Spartan infielder who took him yard at Bob White last season.
In the Class 3A tournament, No. 8 Stanfield (19-7) hosts No. 9 Pleasant Hill (16-10) today with a 5 p.m. start.
“We just gotta stay sharp, stay healthy, keep the arms fresh and everything else,” head coach Bryan Johnson told Hermiston Herald reporter Sam Barbee after the district-winning 3-1 decision over Vale last week. “We’ve treated every game like a state game so there shouldn’t be a huge chance with the stakes and all that. We just gotta come out, be aggressive and play baseball.”
Both teams are recent state champs. Pleasant Hill won the 2013 Class 3A title over Horizon Christian. Stanfield defeated Portland Christian to win its first state championship in 2011.