Oregon City catcher takes point in Pioneers' turnaround effort
Oregon City High School's baseball program took two steps back last spring, finishing last in the Three Rivers League and missing the 6A playoffs for the first time in eight seasons.
How quickly can the Pioneers get things turned around?
They've taken some positive strides through the first month of the OIBA summer season with catcher Ashton Stalheim helping lead the way.
Stalheim, one of seven rising seniors on Oregon City's roster, does a little bit of everything behind the plate.
"Ashton's got tools," Pioneers coach J.J. Winkle said. "I think he's a kid that could maybe possibly play at the next level somewhere.
"He's got a good frame, a great arm, does a good job receiving, he's not afraid to block a pitch, and he does a good job with our pitching staff as far as keeping their heads in the game."
Stalheim had a breakout junior season when he did 95 percent of catching and batted .324 while hitting seventh in the order. He efforts went largely unnoticed on a team that finished 8-18 overall and 3-15 in the Three Rivers, although the league's coaches paid him a nice tribute when they named him to the all-league second team.
"He was a kid who at the beginning of the year was an average ballplayer and then he just worked his butt off all spring," Winkle said. "This summer, he just wants to be the best player that he can be.
"Ashton does a good job of helping us know how to work the hitters. And if our pitcher is struggling a little bit, he knows when to go out there and settle him down and he knows how to handle each guy. I mean, he can slap somebody in the head or he can pat somebody on the ass, and he knows which ones have maybe a little thicker skin than the others."
Coming up through the local Junior Baseball Organization ranks as a young player, Stalheim split most of his playing time among four positions -- center field, third base, pitcher, and catcher.
It wasn't until he got into the high school program that he started to devote most of his energy into playing catcher.
"I had a good, strong arm," Stalheim said. "The high school coaches wanted me to catch more and more because I could shut down another team's running game pretty fast once they saw that I could throw the ball down to second really well.
"I just like being in command of the field and being the one that controls everything that happens at all times."
In addition to his responsibilities behind the plate, Stalheim has also moved up the No. 3 in the batting order -- the spot typically reserved for high-average hitters whose job is to either drive in runs or help set the table for the No. 4 and No. 5 hitters.
"He's probably our best No. 3 hitter right now," Winkle said. "I don't know if he's a 'true' No. 3 hitter, but he's what we've got. And a lot is going to happen between now and next sprint, but he's going to be a middle-of-the-order guy, whether he's hitting 3, 4 or 5. So, we'll see."
Stalheim said the biggest difference he's noticed in his move up the batting order is that he's seeing more off-speed pitches and fewer fastballs than he saw when he batted down in the order.
"It's more of a challenge, but I think it's something that I can grow into," Stalheim said. "During the spring, I consistently made contact every game when I was down in the order. Hitting third, it's a good spot as long as I can get my head in the game."
His basic hitting philosophy is to "hunt the fastball."
"If somebody throws me a first-pitch screwball, I'm letting it go because I'm sitting on a fastball," Stalheim said. "I'm not really particular, whether it's inside or outside, as long as it's a fastball."
What about swinging at the first pitch?
"If it's down the middle or just off the plate, I'll swing," he said. "If it's inside, I'll usually let it go, just because I don't want to get jammed."
Last spring was a tough season from everyone connected with Oregon City baseball.
The Pioneers have had their share of recent success (see 2012 state championship; 2016 state runner-up), but when they made the jump last season back to the Three Rivers League after a four-year run in the Mt. Hood Conference, the season turned into one long struggle.
Part of it was the stiffer competition from top to bottom in the Three Rivers. But Stalheim said the Pioneers also had a hard time knowing what to do in the face of adversity.
"I think we could have turned the season around at different points," he said. "Most of our games were pretty close, but once the other team got a lead, we tended to just shut down, which was tough."
Winkle saw many of the same shortcomings.
"When we were running well, everybody was hunky-dory," Winkle said. "But when things weren't going our way, everybody was moping and we were a team that could not play from behind.
"We struggled last year with team chemistry. We struggled with how to handle failure. We didn't know how to lift ourselves up and I'll take responsibility for that. I've got to do a better job of teaching these guys how to handle adversity."
Oregon City spent the last few weeks of the league season teetering on the playoff bubble, but saw their post-season hopes dashed when they lost eight of their final nine games -- a disappointing finish that Winkle has tried to turn into a source of motivation this summer.
"We've got to get better," Winkle said. "Being the last-place team in the Three Rivers League was not fun at all. Every week, we were the homecoming game for every team that couldn't wait to see Oregon City. I want to get away from that mentality.
"I think we have good enough athletes and good enough baseball players that we shouldn't be a last-place team."
Recently, the Pioneers have leaned heavily on center fielder Robert Boland, outfielder Henry Brauckmiller, second baseman Diego Marquez, first baseman Broc Riskey, third baseman/pitcher Johnny Rotter, will look to build around center fielder Robert Boland, outfielder/pitcher Dalton Welch, shortstop/pitcher Jordan Weseman, and Stalheim.
"Last season, we had the talent and we had the ability to go really far with the kids we had, but everyone just got down as soon as we fell behind," Stalheim said. "I think the team we have now has a bit more fight and we're going to fight for the whole game."
Stalheim wasn't immune to the frustration that permeated last season, which is an area that Winkle said still needs some work.
"Sometimes, Ashton gets in his own head and he's hard on himself when he's not doing well," Winkle said. "We've got to balance that out because every once in a while if he makes a mistake defensively, he might let it run into his offensive game, or vice versa.
"Being a catcher, you've got to be able to handle the good with the bad and you've got to be able to flush everything because you're into every pitch and you've got stuff to do back there. You don't have time to feel sorry for yourself, and he's learning that."
Stalheim also has been called on at times this summer to do some pitching, although Winkle has used the right-hander somewhat reluctantly.
"He could be one of our better guys," Winkle said. "The problem is, I just don't like our catchers pitching. I mean, he's really good behind the plate. Really good. One of the best I've coached.
"He's got a plus-plus arm and he can really throw it, but he's a decent pitcher, too, so we're kind of up in the air about what we're going to do with him. He's going to be our catcher, for sure, but he may end up having to pitch a little bit, too."
So, if there is one facet of Stalheim's game that he is giving special attention to this summer, what is it?
"Mainly, everything," he said. "As long as I can work on everything -- blocking better, framing better, hitter better -- I'm always ready to make improvement. Everything can be improved."