The 2012 baseball season ended for Hermiston with four straight losses, including three to Umatilla County rival Pendleton, and led into a long offseason of change for the Bulldogs.

When the ice thawed on Hermiston’s spring, out came a Dawgs team similar looking to the eye, but much different in terms of intangibles.

“I think a big part of it is, well another year of maturity helps too, but a lot of it is the mental aspect and mental approach to the game,” first-year head coach Doug Taylor said.

The Bulldogs’ new approach and the ability to put bad plays behind them during a game have helped Hermiston build the best record in the Columbia River?Conference through most of the early season. With one more non-league game left Wednesday against Baker, the Dawgs (6-2) are ready to open league play.

Coming up first, Hermiston will find The Dalles Wahtonka on its slate this Saturday. The Bulldogs go on the road first for a doubleheader with a noon-time start before the teams turn around and return to Eastern Oregon for one game next Tuesday.

The Dalles Wahtonka (9-4) has more wins than any other CRC team and is getting there with offense. But Hermiston’s success this season has come when the other team is at bat. The Dawgs are limiting runs.

Through eight games last year, or to the point that Hermiston has reached in its schedule in 2013, the Bulldogs were allowing just short of nine runs per game on their way to a season in which they averaged more than eight allowed per game. Those Dawgs finished a paltry 9-17.

This year’s Bulldogs have cut that number almost in half to below five per game and that’s come on the strength of pitching and defense.

“Last year if somebody made an error, it seemed to snowball, compile, and would affect the next play,” said Taylor, who was a junior varsity coach for Hermiston then.

The Bulldog bats, decently strong last season, have remained that way. On top of the offense, pitchers like Nychal Gritz and Sean Smith have stepped up on the mound to boost the Hermiston turnaround. The addition of pitching coach Matt Bergstrom has given the boys a new confidence in their arms as well, Taylor added.

But until another team rises up to take the league title, Pendleton will still be the defending champion. The Bucks, who reached the Class 5A state quarterfinals before losing in 2012, have lost a lot of pieces to graduation or injury. They’ll start league play by hosting Hood River Valley (6-6) for two games Saturday as well.

The Bucks (7-5) have one more non-conference game before then, today at La Grande.

Pendleton is the only CRC team that has allowed more runs that it’s scored this year, but some of that can be attributed to the competition of play.

Both Hermiston and Pendleton have had the bulk of their games come against non-5A teams, each playing within its classification just twice this spring. The Bucks have played six like-sized Washington schools and two 6A Oregon schools. The Dawgs have gone 5-0 against 6A schools.

Strong preseason schedules have both Eastern Oregon programs ranked in the top four per RPI with Hermiston third just ahead of Pendleton.

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