Baseball: Kennedy calls on depth to carry the season
Note: The Kennedy baseball team beat the St. Paul Buckaroos 10-5 on Monday. Check out the story for a full recap of the game.As the Kennedy baseball team walked off the field from last week's 17-1 conference victory over the East Linn Christian Eagles, it was an interesting contrast of competing programs.
Both teams entered the season with relatively young rosters composed mostly of freshmen and sophomores. But whereas the Eagles sit with a 1-8 record, a reasonable place for a team rebuilding behind a young lineup, the Trojans are 8-1 on the season, sitting at No. 2 in the OSAA rankings with the most runs scored in the 2A/1A Special District 2 conference.
"I'm pleasantly surprised," Kennedy head coach Kevin Moffatt said. "We're a little ahead of where I thought we would be."
The Trojans have long been a stable power in the 2A/1A Classification, even before the program's 2012 state championship. Since the OSAA expanded to six classifications in 2006, Kennedy has never failed to log fewer than 13 wins in a season or post a sub-.500 season.
The program has been even better after the title, making the playoffs every year, winning 18 or more games each season and winning at least a share of the league title in five of six years between 2011 and 2016.
But every program has a down year eventually.
The Trojans graduated District Player of the Year Jack Suing and First Team infielder Brett Traeger — both phenomenal all-state athletes who were the backbone of last year's team. It's the first time in recent memory that Kennedy didn't start the season with an all-state player leading the team.
"Losing Brett and Jack — that was a big piece of our offense last year," Moffatt said. "Those guys hit over .400."
If Kennedy were due for a rebuilding season, it was this year. But these Trojans are made of stronger stuff.
For starters, the team returns a trio of seniors in Jonathan Valladares, Daniel Moreno and Jorge Espinoza. Moreno earned Second Team All-Conference honors at pitcher, while Espinoza was a Second Team selection as a utility player. Valladares also boasts a versatile skill set, being able to move between infield, outfield and the pitcher's mound.
But the real rebuild actually began last year. Moffatt called four freshmen up to the varsity roster in 2017: Sam GrosJacques, Joshua Valladares, Demetre Marseille and Bryce Beyer. After a year of seasoning, those four teamed with the three seniors and junior Angel De La Rosa to give the Trojans a strong backbone of returning players to rely upon this year. Although none of them possess the resume of Suing or Traeger, Moffatt is content to trade in one or two high-end players for much more depth up and down the roster.
"We kind of spread it out over the full nine guys in the order," Moffatt said. "They've all come in and done what we've asked. We're not asking them to save the world. We're just asking them to be solid baseball guys."
The same can be said of the team's incoming freshmen. Moffatt doubled down on the youth movement this year, bringing up six more freshmen to varsity to give the Kennedy roster 10 underclassmen. They've all bought into the same philosophy: Everyone accepts a role, plays within their skill level and plays steady, dependable baseball.
"They've all bought in," Moffatt said. "I think a big piece of the equation has been our young kids have been really stepping up and doing a good job."
The Kennedy coach cautions not to put too much stock in the hot start this season. Part of the team's lofty ranking comes from a forfeit victory over No. 4 Umpqua Valley Christian that the Lions had actually won 10-3 in 11 innings.
And while the Trojans have scored a league-high 84 runs in nine games this year, Moffatt said the team has been too reliant on one or two big offensive innings that helped turn a couple potential losses into victories.
But he's been impressed with the team's steadfast approach to the game. The Trojans' platoon of pitchers has been dependable on the mound, limiting walks and allowing the team's defense to make plays.
"We're pretty solid defensively, so if we do just throw strikes, we're going to be OK," Moffatt said. "We have to walk less than three guys a game. For the majority of it, that's what we've done."
Such was the case against Weston-McEwen on March 27. Although the Tiger-Scots outhit the Trojans by a 19-6 margin, Kennedy's pitchers were careful to give up very few free bases. Not so for the Tiger-Scots, who gave up close to 20 walks that allowed the Trojans to come away with a 19-14 victory.
Moffatt worries the team sometimes is a bit too selective at the plate, but the team has become more assertive on offense in recent games, posting double-digit scoring numbers in four of their past five outings.
As Kennedy enters the bulk of its conference schedule, it'll face its fiercest competition from nearby No. 5 St. Paul (6-0, 3-0 SD2), which has given up a league-low 16 runs this season. But Moffatt expects his team will be right there in the running to extend the program's streak of playoff appearances to eight straight this season. And win or lose, the Trojans have the personnel to make the season fun.
"We've got good kids. We've been lucky," Moffatt said. "Even if this season takes a turn, it's a good group of kids to be around, and they make it pretty enjoyable."