Neah-Kah-Nie has returned to the state baseball playoffs after a 21-year absence and just two years removed from a winless season.
The Pirates earned the Northwest League’s second playoff berth May 18, with an 8-1 victory over Vernonia at the NWL playoffs at Pacific University in Forest Grove.
Vernonia made it into the showdown with the second-place Pirates by defeating Nestucca 6-2 in the earlier playoff game.
The Loggers were not able to find their offense with Bryce Bridge on the mound for the Pirates. Vernonia had a 2-1 record against Neah- Kah-Nie during league play, but they couldn’t find the way past the Pirates’ sophomore hurler.
By Brad Mosher
Although he got off to a rocky start, giving up two walks to start the game, Bridge was able to shut out the Loggers for most of the game. It wasn’t until the top of the sixth inning that Vernonia finally got on the scoreboard.
That only slightly cut into the 5-0 lead Neah-Kah-Nie had built up in the first five innings.
But three more Pirate runs in the sixth inning all but buried the Loggers’ flickering hopes for a state playoff berth.
In the top of the seventh inning, Vernonia was unable to mount a threat as Bridge sealed up the win.
Tye Fitzgerald started the game as Neah-Kah-Nie’s first batter, but his first trip to first Wednesday came after he was hit by a pitch. That pitch, and a single by Colby Hixson, came back to haunt Vernonia quickly after they scored.
Fitzgerald scored first on an infield grounder by Bridge. The next Pirate batter, Sean Harth, hit into the same infield play to get Hixson across the plate.
Ahead 2-0 going into the second inning at bats, the Pirates added three more runs. B.J. Dillard started the inning with a walk, then stole both second and third. Cameron Kelly also got a walk from the Vernonia pitcher.
Sam Holm hit into an infield out at first, but pushed Dillard across the plate to give the Pirates a 3-0 lead with one out.
Kelly made it a 4-0 lead, scoring on Fitzgerald’s single.
After stealing second, Fitzgerald scored on Hixson’s single, giving the Pirates an early 5-0 advantage.
Neither team scored again until the sixth inning, when Vernonia came up with its only run in the top of the inning.
In the bottom of the inning, Neah-Kah-Nie added three more runs, when Kelly started with a walk. Holm’s double brought Kelly across the plate, then Josh Longfellow’s single did the same for Holm.
Longfellow scored the game’s final run with a double by Hixson.
The win put the Pirates in the playoffs, but it also continued the rise in the polls over the recent weeks.
After Neah-Kah-Nie came back from Arizona without a win early in the season, the OSAA baseball poll dropped the team’s ranking down into the mid-30s.
But Wednesday’s win put the Pirates among the top 20 teams. Neah-Kah-Nie was ranked 17th Thursday – a jump of almost 20 places in the poll since the Arizona trip.
Knappa, the Northwest League champion with a 21-1 season record is ranked second. The defending state champions’ only loss was to Nestucca this season, which ended a three-year league winning streak.
Burns, with a 21-5 season record, is the top team in the 2A baseball poll.
Rebounding from 0-21 season
It is quite a change from two years ago when coach Rob Herder took over a program that had just finished a winless 2014 season.
“It is quite a change,” he agreed, after the game, the celebration and all-league awards had been handed out.
“Two years ago when I first started playing catch with some of these guys, they couldn’t return the ball because they couldn’t catch it.
“Where we are now, we are playing what I call really good baseball. I couldn’t be more proud of them. Whether they were a starter or coming off the bench today (Wednesday), they were all prepared,” the coach said.
In some ways, it wasn’t a typical Bridge-pitched game, according to Herder. “He typically averages about a walk a game. That makes it tough on our opponents to really string things together when you have to put hits together to score on us,” he said. “But, he always seems to elevate his game against the toughest hitters. When we have Bryce on the mound, we find that we can manage the game. Rarely do we give up a big inning, like three runs or more than that.
“It gives our defense confidence. A lot of the time, he (Bridge) pitches to contact, so our defense really comes to play,” the coach added. “… and they did today.”
The windy conditions Wednesday played a factor in the game, especially with long fly balls hit to the outfield, the coach said.
“We had a couple of deep fly balls that looked like they were easily going to go over the head of our outfielders. You could tell just by their approach. They took off on a sprint, then saw that the ball was hanging up and had to come back. They made a routine catch look really hard,” Herder said with a smile.
Looking ahead to the state playoffs is something new, Herder said. “We were such hyper-focused on the two teams we had in front of us today (Nestucca or Vernonia). We took a lot of notes and the coaches got the kids prepared and put together a game plan.
“And our kids were able to execute that today,” the coach added.
The team earned its first day off of the season (Thursday),” said Herder. Actually, only the players got the day off, as Herder and the coaching staff change their focus to playing in the first round of the state playoffs.
Coach sees road trip change
Herder said it is still up in the air with the other leagues as to what teams will qualify. “We will probably be playing a pretty good team,” the coach said, adding that will not be anything new for his team. They finished second in the NWL to the defending state champions and they played much bigger programs in a long road trip to an Arizona national-level baseball tournament.
“You have to be pretty darn good to get in. I mean it is 16 teams left in the state with almost 50 in the state 2A classification.
“We know that we are in for a tall task, but all year long we have played teams that were a tall task for us,” he added.
The Arizona trip didn’t bring a win to the Pirates’ record, but the coach said it helped prepare the team to play against better and tougher programs. “We are ready. We are as ready as we’ll ever be.”