BASEBALL: Forest Grove looks to recapture some of last year's late-season magic

The hunt for one of the Pacific Conference's four state playoff bids in 2008 is shaping up to be an arms race.

The league is loaded with talented pitchers this year, making Forest Grove head coach Joe Baumgartner wonder how close his team can come to repeating last season's feat of snagging the conference's final playoff spot.

'There are some really, really quality kids in this league,' he said. 'Talent-wise I think we're definitely better than last year, but this league is going to be one of the best in the state.'

For reference, Forest Grove's No. 1 starter, junior Aaron Huson, is a smooth-throwing righthander with a fastball in the mid-80s and some nasty breaking pitches. Last year Huson posted a team-low 2.56 ERA in a team-high 52 innings of work. But when it comes to rating pitching talent in a conference saturated with it, Huson could get lost in the shuffle.

'There are maybe four or five guys with the talent to be all-state pitchers all coming out of the same league,' Baumgartner said. 'There's just so much pitching in this league.'

Headlining the group of front-line starters are two future Division I hurlers - Tigard's Ryan Gorton, who has already verbally committed to Oregon State, and Tualatin's Mitchell Lambson, who has verballed with Arizona State. Lambson's younger brother, Mark, is also a budding pitching prospect, while Canby and Newberg each have top-notch starters anchoring their rotations.

Still, given the conference's scheduling format of playing three games each week, all against the same opponent, Baumgartner knows that the Vikings can only face each of those pitchers once. So it's not necessarily the team with the best starter - it's the team with the best starting rotation that will fight for a league championship and a state playoff berth.

'Our pitching staff is pretty deep, which we'll need,' Baumgartner said. 'I think it will really come together as we get going and I'm hoping the depth of our pitching staff is going to help us.'

In addition to Huson, the Vikings will lean on fellow junior Mitch Ooley, who came on strong late last season with a 2.75 ERA in league play. The other starter will likely be lefthanded sophomore Joe Piercey.

Forest Grove will also have a strong bullpen with seniors Kyle Swaja, Joey Flanery and Nathan Tasa all returning from last year.

Offensively, Flanery and fellow senior Chris Hormann will be the table-setters at the top of the lineup, combining for 18 stolen bases last year. They will be followed by the big bats of Swaja, Huson, Mitch Andresen and Jeremy Makus.

'We've got the speed guys at the top and the next five guys are all pretty dang good hitters,' Baumgartner said.

Swaja is the team's top returning hitter. The senior batted .287 last year with a team-high 10 extra-base hits and 24 RBIs.

The offense could be an issue since the Vikings hit just .242 as a team last year, but the more glaring statistic was the team's 85 fielding errors in 27 games. Those miscues opened the door for 67 unearned runs.

'Our infielders are pretty experienced from a baseball standpoint,' Baumgartner said. 'In the outfield we've got the guys to fit the pieces, we just have to figure out who will be in which spot.'

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