Madras baseball makes postseason despite 'Mickey Mouse innings'
Madras head coach Jerry Shaw often talks about 'Mickey Mouse innings' — those head-scratching moments when his players can't seem to get anything right.
On Thursday, May 12, in a crucial regular-season finale against Estacada, the White Buffalos started off with one of those innings. Thankfully, the Buffs have gotten quite good at digging themselves out of those early holes.
Madras did just that on Thursday, beating Estacada 4-3 at home to secure a third-place finish in the Tri-Valley Conference and an automatic berth into the postseason.
"Oh my goodness, I don't know why we can't just do it easy," laughed Shaw after the win. "We've got to spot them leads in the first and then chip away."
"It's those 'Mickey Mouse innings,'" he continued. "I'm just happy we figured out how to do it in the first inning, so we can battle through and play the next seven."
With the regular season finished, Madras can now exhale for the first time in weeks. The Buffs have been chasing the Tri-Valley's third playoff spot all year long, and now they have finally captured it.
"These guys are young enough that they're learning to win," said Shaw of his squad, which includes just three seniors — Carter Dunten, Ethan Graeme and Reece White — in its typical everyday lineup. "That's important as a program going forward. We want to expect and learn how to win."
After spotting Molalla five runs in the first inning less than 24 hours earlier, Madras committed three errors to allow three Ranger scores in the opening frame on Thursday. However, starting pitcher Ayden Holcomb settled into a serious groove after the first inning and did not allow another Estacada run to cross the plate. The White Buffalo offense also arrived just in time, scoring all four of its runs by the end of the third inning.
On the mound, Holcomb pitched a complete game for the Buffs, throwing 94 pitches over seven innings while recording five strikeouts, six hits, one hit-by-pitch and no walks.
"I knew this game was a must-win," said the junior. "I just did what we needed to do and tried to do my best up there. I was throwing strikes, and that's what needed to be done. I trusted my infield."
For all the trust he placed in the defense behind him, however, perhaps the two biggest defensive plays of the night were made by Holcomb himself. After Madras took the lead, Holcomb got himself out of a jam with two big outs in the sixth inning.
With one down and the bases loaded, the pitcher acted quickly to pounce on a bunt attempt and quickly flipped the ball to catcher Cael White for a force-out that kept the Buffs up by one run.
"I threw the pitch and saw him lay down (a bunt)," said Holcomb. "I knew I had to charge or go to third. So, I started charging, but then it took a weird hop. I slipped and barely palmed the ball, but then I was able to throw to home. That's all that matters — we got him out."
In the next at-bat, Holcomb once again fielded his position well, snagging a dribbler in the infield and getting it to Reece White at first base to end the inning.
"We preach 'PFP' — pitchers' fielding practice," said Shaw. "We make sure they field their positions and do what they've got to do."
Of course, Holcomb would not have had a lead to protect if not for some well-timed Madras offense earlier in the game. Graeme doubled to lead off the second inning, and the senior was moved over to third on a single by sophomore Noah Vibbert. Graeme was knocked in on a groundout RBI from Conner Flu to make the game 3-1 after two frames.
In the third inning, Madras got hits from Holcomb and freshman Jackson Hertel before Dru Boyle drove Hertel in on a fielder's choice. The Buffs then took advantage of a lapse in control from the Estacada pitcher, with Graeme being hit by a pitch before Vibbert walked the bases loaded. That brought Flu back up to the plate, and the junior slapped a two-run single into left field to give Madras its first lead — one it would never surrender — to make it two games in a row in which Flu had the game-winning RBI.
The teams traded scoreless innings from then on, with Estacada's near-miss in the sixth inning being the closest the Rangers would come to tying or taking back the lead. All those zeroes on the scoreboard were thanks in large part to Holcomb's ace pitching, but the defense behind him also buckled down after their rough first inning.
"They were making the plays that needed to be made," said Holcomb of his defensive support.
Shaw noted that with Holcomb — the team's everyday second baseman — on the mound, he made some changes in the infield. Flu, who threw over 100 pitches the day before against Molalla, shifted from shortstop over to the keystone to enable him to make some shorter throws. Meanwhile, Hertel set up shop at short instead of at second, where he normally lines up when Holcomb pitches.
It took those two some time to adjust to different fielding angles — the proof coming in those early errors — but they were able to figure it out in time. For his part, Flu was part of a crucial 6-4-3 double play in the fifth inning, which was started by a heads-up play with the glove from Graeme at third base.
Shaw added that the team will be getting back to some basics in practice, including working on getting better contact on the ball at the plate.
"We want to get back to hitting the ball without the pop-ups and rolling it over," noted Shaw. "We didn't hit the ball on the nails — I don't want to say it's just us, sometimes the pitchers do their jobs — but we've got to get back to hitting the ball hard."
More than that, the team can now ease into some much-needed rest after a frantic finish in which the Buffs played critical games four days in a row.
"Take a couple days, get some rest," Shaw said of his team's plans now that they have clinched the postseason. "Four games straight after last week's travel — it's been a heck of a two weeks. We'll do a light practice (Friday), then give them Saturday and Sunday off. Then we'll practice Monday and figure out who we've got and where we're at."
Though the Buffs are still awaiting word on their next opponent, Shaw says the team is ready to take on all challengers.
"We'll go play anybody, anywhere," Shaw emphasized. "We're hoping for the best, and we'll just go from there."
As of Friday, May 13, Madras was ranked No. 15 in the OSAA computer rankings. If those rankings hold, Madras would host a play-in game to earn entry into the official 16-team playoff bracket. The six league champions in Class 4A and the two best second-place teams receive byes into the round of 16, while the other second-place teams, third-place teams and six more at-large teams will face off to decide the other eight spots.
The play-in rounds will be played on or before Saturday, May 21, with the first round of the OSAA 4A Baseball State Championships officially kicking off on the following Monday, May 23.
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