The Mustangs (2-4) lost 11-2 to Centennial on Wednesday in their final tune-up before next week's NWOC opener vs. Hillsboro

PAMPLIN MEDIA: JIM BESEDA - Milwaukie senior Dustin King pitched 2 1/3 innings in relief of starter Keith Doherty in Wednesday's non-conference game against Centennial at Sckavone Stadium in Portland.As the Milwaukie baseball team gathered on the sidewalk behind the third-base dugout at Sckavone Stadium after Wednesday's 11-2 loss to Centennial, Mustangs coach Bud Taylor told his players to keep their heads up.

"We've just got to keep plugging away," Taylor said.

The Mustangs had a lot to digest after the Eagles erupted for nine runs in the sixth inning and turned a one-run game into a blowout to close out the three-day PIL Spring Break Tournament.

It was Milwaukie's fourth loss in six games to open the season, and it also was the Mustangs' second game without senior second baseman Nathaniel McGowan, who was in the hospital after suffering stroke-like symptoms before Tuesday's 12-6 loss against Franklin.

Throw in an inexperienced pitching staff, a few inconsistent bats, some spotty defense, and a couple other bumps and bruises, and one big question remains: Are the Mustangs ready to compete in the Northwest Oregon Conference heading into Wednesday's league opener against Hillsboro?

"We've got a good mix of players, young and old, but we haven't found our groove yet," Taylor said. "Pitching has been really sporadic, hitting has been really sporadic … but once we find our groove, I'm hoping that we can stay in the middle of the pack and finish somewhere in the top six.

"Our goal right now is to make it into the state playoffs. I think we have the kids to do it. We graduated three really good pitchers that are all playing college ball right now so we're not a strong as we were last year on the mound, but we have guys that can throw strikes. They just haven't found their groove yet."

Things were looking up when Milwaukie opened last week's PIL tournament with a 9-1 win over Benson on Monday at Walker Stadium. Kaden Middleton led the way, going 4 for 4 with a double, a triple, and three RBIs, and also pitched four strong innings, holding the Techmen to one run on three hits with four walks and 10 strikeouts.

Then the Mustangs met with unexpected adversity before Tuesday's game against Franklin when they learned that McGowan had been rushed to the hospital.

"Nathaniel was actually getting ready to come to Tuesday's game and came out of his room and his speech was slurred and he was dizzy and his sister said, 'You're not going anywhere,'" Taylor said. "His sister called their mom and she took him to Milwaukie Providence Hospital."

Taylor said McGowan made significant progress within 24 hours of arriving at the hospital and was eager to get back on the field.

"We all went up Tuesday night and we couldn't really see him, but we did some face-time stuff on somebody's iPad and it was great," Taylor said. "He wanted to be here today and said he wanted to play, but the doctor said, 'Oh, no, you're not playing today.'

"We really need him. He's a good second baseman, he can hit for power, and he's just a good, all-around leader in a lot of ways."

Through four games, McGowan batted .417 (5 for 12) with a double, two homers and four RBIs, hitting in the No. 2 spot behind Keith Doherty.

The Mustangs hope McGowan is cleared to rejoin the team in time for Wednesday's league opener, but the reality is that they could be without the senior second baseman indefinitely depending on what his doctor decide.

Against Centennial, the Mustangs were trailing 2-1 in the sixth when the Eagles sent 12 batters to the plate and scored nine runs on two hits, a sacrifice bunt, a sacrifice fly, three walks, one hit batter, and three Milwaukie errors.

"That's kind of our season in a nutshell," Taylor said. "We're 2-4 and we've played really well at times, and then we've played really cruddy. And when you play cruddy, bad things happen. And then we seem to find ways to compound our mistakes.

"That's why I just told the guys, 'We're just going to keep plugging away.' I'm going to give them a couple of days off, then we're going to come back and hit it hard on Monday and Tuesday, and then I hope they're ready to get after it against Hillsboro on Wednesday."

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