By Ronald Bond
For those baseball fans who notice patterns, the next few days could be in for a wild ride that takes them back to two summers ago.
The La Grande Juniors baseball team, which begins play in the regional tournament Sunday morning in San Jose, California, enters after winning several must-win contests following a loss in its first game at state.
Of course, that’s what the La Grande Little League team that nearly reached the World Series two years ago did — recover from an early loss to run the table at state, and then kept the proverbial snowball rolling at regionals.
And it just so happens five players from that team are on this squad.
“This team, from the beginning of the league to now, (has) been really rolling,” head coach Doug Schow said of the team, which won five games in a row — including twice against Murrayhill in the championship round, 5-1 and 14-7 — to secure the state title July 17.
The strength of the team, which Schow said is “pretty well rounded,” is likely its pitching. The coach said about half of the 13 players on the team can pitch. Developing pitching is a major focal point for Schow.
“I spend a lot of time on mechanics and basic fundamentals of pitching, really push these kids to throw strikes, and (teach them that) every pitch makes a difference,” he said. “Talking about the mental part of pitching, (I tell them) you can’t just get up there. You gotta focus on pinpointing where you are going to throw and go over and over.”
The team also has an improving offense, Schow said, that has worked on the basics at the plate — finding a way to get on, executing in moving players over, and then getting baserunners in — “just basic things that a lot of these kids haven’t been taught.
“If you can do those fundamentals, it puts pressure on the (other) team,” he said. “Last year we had a lot of guys who could hit the ball gap to gap. This year we got more speed. Once we’re on the basepaths we’re stealing.”
Cole Shafer, one of the five players who was on the 2017 squad and one of the four who were on the juniors state title team last year, was actually surprised the team found its way back to regionals after losing some key players who were too old to play this summer.
“The other players who came onto the team really stepped up to help us win,” he said.
Shafer added that he believes the offense is a strength.
“We definitely can hit. We worked hard at it all season,” he said.
Sam Tsiatsos, who was also on both previous regional qualifying teams, said he’s excited about the prospect of playing in California with his friends again.
“We’ve played together since we were little, and we have that chemistry. We know what each other is capable of,” he said.
La Grande opens against either San Jose or Alaska at 10 a.m. Sunday. The championship round, which could be as close at three wins away, is Aug. 3.