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Pioneers coach J.J. Winkle likes what his players accomplished this summer as they prepare to rejoin Three Rivers League

PAMPLIN MEDIA: JIM BESEDA - Oregon City's Christian Mansfield is expected to help anchor the Pioneers' pitching rotation as they prepare to return to the Three Rivers League next spring.When summer started, the Oregon City High School baseball program was filled with question marks.

How would the Pioneers respond to the loss of six senior starters?

Which players among the 10 returning seniors would step into leadership roles?

Who would do the pitching?

What impact can the Pioneers expect to make in their return to the Three Rivers League next spring?

Could they possibly contend for a league title with what they have coming back?

As the summer played out, the Pioneers didn't come up with answers to all the question, but they made enough headway on most of the major ones that they were able to walk away from their 8-7 loss to Lincoln in the opening round of the OIBA championship tournament feeling good about the progress they'd made over the past two months.

"At the beginning of summer, I really didn't have any idea what we had," Pioneers coach J.J. Winkle said. "We were really, really inexperienced. We really only had maybe three guys coming back with varsity experience from this last spring, so it was good to get everybody some playing time."

The Pioneers won more games than they lost this summer, finishing with a 17-13 record. But the OIBA season had more to do with research and development than it had to with wins and losses.

"As a team, we had our ups and downs," senior right fielder Tanner Osborne said. "We needed to come together, and we went from people working in their own kind of world to acting more like a family and a team.

"We went through a lot of approach changes at the plate and a lot of mindset changes on the field, but towards the end of summer, we came together and it showed in everything we did."

One of the bright spots was the play of Dustin Fisher, a junior who started the summer playing on Oregon City's OIBA Futures team -- or the Pioneers' junior varsity team -- and worked his way up to a starting job with the varsity team at third base over the final three weeks of summer.

Another was Hunter Davis, who saw limited varsity experience as a backup shortstop last spring, then moved to the outfield the summer and emerged as one of the team's more consistent hitters.

"I learned a lot about these players," Winkle said. "I really did. I don't know how good we're going to be next spring, but we're going to be better. What does that mean? I don't know. But we'll be better.

"The nice thing about this group is I can't get rid of them. They want to be at the hitting facility. They want to be a the field. They want to practice. And they want to get better. You can't knock them for that, right?"

Last hurrah

In the OIBA tourney opener, the Pioneers -- or Black Sox, the nickname the summer team uses -- went down fighting against Lincoln in a game that turned into a slugfest and went one extra inning before it was decided.

Oregon City scored a run in the first inning and another in the second, and then Lincoln scored two in the third to tie it 2-2.

The Pioneers regained the lead with a run in the fourth, Lincoln answered with a run in the bottom half of the inning to tie it, and then Osborne scored on Davis' two-out single in the fifth to put OC back in front 4-3.

In the sixth, Lincoln sent eight batters to the plate and scored three runs on one hit, two walks, and three Oregon City errors, taking a 6-4 lead when Zach Schwartz scored from third on clean-up hitter Myles Parkel's sacrifice fly to center.

Lincoln starter Mike Reilly retired the first two OC batters he faced in the seventh, and then the Pioneers got a single from Brock Riskey, a double from Micheal Montoya, a two-run single from Connor McAlbin, and an RBI-double by Davis to take a 7-6 lead.

The Cardinals loaded the bases with none out in the seventh, but the Pioneers escaped with minimal damage, allowing one run on a fielder's choice before Osborne made a game-saving catch on the run near the foul line in right to end the inning.

After Oregon City left the potential go-ahead run stranded at second base in the eighth, Lincoln's Parkel drove a one-out triple to the gap in left-center field and scored the winning run when the relay throw to third skipped past Fisher and bounced out of play.

"After Lincoln scored three in the sixth, we could have easily just said, 'Oh, forget it. We're done,'" Winkle said. "And even in the bottom of the seventh, Lincoln had bases loaded, no outs, and we got out of that inning with giving up only one run. That's a win for us. Our kids battled.

"And I'll tell you this, I think if we would have played that type of game at the beginning of the summer, we don't play that hard. We didn't have that fight in us when the summer started.

"But through the summer, these kids learned how to fight, learned how to deal with adversity, and learned how to deal with me getting on their butts, and we went and played our game and did our thing."

On a down note, Oregon City had six errors and botched a couple of seventh-inning bunt plays, which ended up being the difference in a one-run game.

"There are four things that we can control -- our effort, our attitude, our pitching, and our defense," Winkle said. "If we can't control those, we're going to have a hard time winning.

"We didn't do a very good job defensively against Lincoln. We made some mistakes that kept them in the game, but if you look at it, we kept fighting. I mean, it could have been an 8-1 game for Lincoln, but we kept at it."

The Pioneers have some promising in the pitching department with Zach Brummel, Christian Mansfield, Brandon Richardson, and Jordan Weseman expected to lead the way.

"Those four guys emerged this summer as varsity-level pitchers," Winkle said. "If we were to start a spring season right now, those four would have to be the guys we'd look at. After that, I'm not sure.

"I think things are looking up. I mean, I think we're going in the right direction. Overall, it was a productive summer. Very productive. We were a better team in the third week of July that we were in the last week of may when we started all this … and that's always the goal."

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