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BY BRADEN JOHNSON/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Team uses 'piggyback starter system' to win season-opening series

Gio Diaz of the Portland Pickles rounds third base in the team's first game as a member of the West Coast League.When the Portland Pickles moved into the West Coast League before the 2018 season, their coaches said pitching depth would be the key to winning consistently.

So far, so good for the college summer wood-bat baseball team, which made its WCL debut Friday at Walker Stadium.

The Pickles posted a 2-1 series win over the Port Angeles Lefties, and allowed a total of four runs.

Port Angeles won Friday's season opener, 3-2, but Portland responded with 6-1 and 2-0 victories.

The Pickles struck out 16 Lefties on Sunday and were error-free in each game.

Portland manager Justin Barchus and freshman left-hander John Beller (USC) credited general manager Gregg Swenson's "piggyback starter system" for the early success.

The system limits the amount of innings a starting pitcher throws per week and allows players to empty the tank rather than conserve energy and face a lineup multiple times.

"A lot of it is being able to come in and let it go as opposed to reserving it," Beller says. "I can just come in and give it a little more gas than usual, and know we have a deep bullpen behind us."

Swenson recruited more than 20 pitchers to ensure starting pitchers could throw only once every six days. Third-year returnee Max Jones (Cal State Monterey Bay) says he has never been a part of a pitching staff this deep.

Barchus alternated between right- and left-handers at least once in each game against Port Angeles.

The Pickles' defense kept the team in all three games as well. On Friday, third baseman Daniel Lopez, a returnee from 2017, twice backhanded hard ground balls hit with runners in scoring position to end an inning. The Pickles turned four double plays Saturday, three of which capped innings.

Shortstop Gio Diaz (Saint Mary's) was involved in three of Saturday's double plays and says having Lopez, a senior-to-be from the University of Portland, at third has helped him adjust to the WCL

"I've played all over the infield, but shortstop has been my main position since I was young. I'm the most comfortable there," Diaz says. "Daniel's a great player. When I first got here, he really took me under his wing, being an older guy, and he's taught me a lot so far."

Barchus says the team has other middle and corner infielders on the way who are just as good defensively and will push for playing time.

Offensively, Portland's approach at the plate improved over the weekend.

The Pickles struck out 19 times in Friday's loss and left runners in scoring position multiple times.

Diaz led Saturday's bounce-back performance, going 4 for 4, with three doubles. He was 6 for 10, with four RBIs, in the series.

Center fielder Joey Cooper (Cal State Northridge) added to Saturday's effort with a solo home run — the Pickles' lone long ball. Cooper, also in his third year with the Pickles, added an RBI double on Sunday.

Cooper played his first season of Division I baseball this spring and was a regular starter for the Matadors.

"Just seeing good arms day in and day out — a lot of Friday night guys who can go out there and shove — it makes you a better baseball player all-around," he says.

The Pickles opened a three-game road series against the Cowlitz Black Bears on Monday, but they'll return to Lents Park on Friday for three games against the Wenatchee AppleSox.

Portland averaged 1,684 fans per game last season, its second year overall and second in the Great West League.

Last weekend, the Pickles drew crowds of 2,507, 1,670 and 2,017.

Barchus says he expects both pitchers and hitters to settle in even more over the next week.

"There were more people than these kids have ever played in front of," Barchus says. "They just need to calm the nerves and control the situation."

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