The Northern Lights Conference baseball tournament starts today at the Soldotna Little League fields, putting the depth of each team’s pitching staff to the test.
There are two state berths up for grabs at the tournament.
For pitching staffs, the least stressful way to make state is to win a first-round game today, win the semifinal tonight, then win the tourney championship Friday night.
The next best way is to lose in that championship Friday, go directly to Saturday’s second-place game, and win. Four games in three days. Not ideal, but doable.
“The bottom line is that if you win three, you don’t have to worry about playing any more,” Kenai Central coach John Kennedy said. “The last two years I’ve had to play five games.
“The first year, we made it. Last year, we lost out.”
The toughest way is to lose in the first round or semifinals, then come all the way back through the second-place bracket. That means five games in three days, calling for remarkable pitching depth.
“I’m not sure we have the pitching for four or five games, but I’m not sure anybody does,” Soldotna coach George Stein said.
The first-round games are Wasilla, No. 1 from the Northern Division, against Soldotna, fourth from the south, at 10 a.m.; Homer, No. 2 from the south, vs. Houston, No. 3 from the north, at 10 a.m.; Kodiak, No. 1 from the south, vs. Palmer, No. 4 from the north, at 1 p.m.; and Colony, No. 2 from the north, against Kenai, No. 3 from the south, at 1 p.m.
The Kards lost 10-0 to Colony earlier in the season. In that game, Kenai made crucial errors to give the Knights extra outs.
Kennedy said his two best pitchers, Dallas Pierren and Miles Jones, have been prone to trying to do too much when the defense shows cracks.
“That’s when they don’t hit their spots, leave the ball up, walk guys and hit guys,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy is not sure who will get the start today. Regardless, the defense will have to limit mistakes. Particularly, the Kards have struggled catching pop-ups this season.
“You get in a tournament like this, you give teams extra outs and they tend to score extra runs,” said Kennedy, whose team was 3-6 this year. “That’s what has happened to us most of the year.”
Kenai struggled at the plate for a good part of the season, but Kennedy said the Kards have raised their team batting average by 30 points in the last two games.
“At this point in the year, it’s going to take everybody,” Kennedy said. “It’s going to take 10 or 12 guys to make this happen.”
Soldotna, which finished 2-7 in the conference, also will be facing a tough first-round matchup. The Stars lost to Wasilla 13-3 earlier in the season.
Stein sounded a lot like Kennedy when asked what could turn that around.
“We have to play good defense and make the routine plays,” he said. “If we do that, we can stay in most games. I’m feeling pretty good about our hitting.”
Stein said another key is for his pitchers to not give up free bases. Many look at the hits, but in high school baseball the result often comes down to free bases and errors.
Stein said the possible exception to that comes if the wind is blowing in the right direction.
“There are some short fences,” he said of the fields in Soldotna. “If the wind is blowing out, I’ve told coaches we’re going to see a lot of home runs.”
Joey Becher, Klayton Justice and Tyler Covey will be the main pitchers for the Stars, while Stein said he will need solid hitting out of Kenny Griffin and Max Conradi.
Homer topped Houston 12-8 earlier in the season. While coach Mark Putney said that gives the Mariners confidence, he still has a lot of respect for Houston.
“They are a solid team,” Putney said. “They had quite a few seniors.”
While Putney certainly would love to win the championship, he said his team is well-positioned to play a lot of games in a short period of time.
“We don’t have anybody that’s overpowering, but our strength is we have more pitching than some of the teams,” he said.
Kyle Johnson, Wylie Donich and Brandon Beachy have been solid starters for the Mariners, while Sheldon Hutt and Owen Delehanty are sturdy relievers.
At the plate, Tommy Bowe can change any game with his power, while Greg Smith has been a clutch hitter. J.J. Sonnen also keys the offense and defense by leading off and playing shortstop.
“I think this team is a good tournament team,” Putney said. “Our wins have mostly come from behind. That’s given us confidence that we’re never out of any game.”