Braves sit in second after wins against Astoria, Tillamook

Some coaches worry about stockpiling wins or boosting their team’s power ranking during the preseason, but Banks head coach Brian Ackerman believes there is still an art to putting together a baseball team.

He spends the preseason tinkering with his lineup. He fiddles with his pitching rotation. He plays everyone on the roster. He encourages his players to face adversity so he can watch how they react.

And then he takes all that information and assembles the best team he can by the start of Cowapa League play.

So who cares that Banks went a pedestrian 3-6 during its non-league schedule? What matters is that the Braves ripped off seven wins in their first nine league games, vaulting to the top of the standings largely on the strength of a refocused and improved pitching staff.

“When we started playing better, we started pitching better, and that was the bottom line,” Ackerman said. “We struggled with ... finding out who we wanted our starters to be. But that’s exactly what I wanted the preseason (to be) for. I wanted to see them in good situations or bad situations and see how they would react.

“It was all learning for us in the preseason. It was about putting them in a position where they were down and had to fight back. They had to see what that feels like.”

While the Braves got off to a bit of a rough start — including a 4-3 loss to Scappoose in their Cowapa League opener on April 2 — the team rebounded and quietly ran off five straight wins to move into the top half of the standings. Last week, Banks knocked off longtime league powerhouse Astoria on Wednesday and then beat playoff contender Tillamook on Friday to move into a tie with Astoria for first place.

Senior catcher and two-time all-state selection Graysen Partain is leading the offense with a team-high .535 batting average, nine extra-base hits and 29 runs scored, but it has been the Braves’ improved pitching staff that has their coach most excited.

“Honestly, that’s been the biggest diference. We’ve been pitching better and that’s keeping us in games until our bats come around,” Ackerman said. “All of our success lately has been because of our pitchers. We feed off them. They’re the ones who set the rhythm and tone of the game.

“Two of the biggest keys for us are getting ahead with first-pitch strikes and our overall strike percentage for the game. They’ve bought into it and they’ve been pitching that way.”

The trio of senior Luke Stearns, junior Devin King and freshman David Schorn has emerged as the Braves’ top pitchers, embracing their coach’s challenge to throw more strikes and work to get ahead of hitters.

In nine preseason games, Banks pitchers threw first-pitch strikes to about 35 percent of hitters; now that number has risen to nearly 55 percent for the season, and Ackerman said his expectation is for it to never fall below 65 percent in a game.

“We had a talk about three-quarters of the way through the preseason where we broke it down for them and said, ‘It starts on the mound. The game goes as our pitchers go,’” Ackerman recalled. “We feed so much off what our pitcher does. If he’s working fast, if he’s around the zone the whole game, if he’s throwing first-pitch strikes, then we are a much better team.”

Since league play began, King is 3-0 on the mound with a 1.58 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 19 innings. Stearns is 3-1 with a 2.77 ERA and 22 strikeouts, and Schorn is 1-0 while allowing only five hits in 12 1/3 innings.

That has set the tone for the Banks offense, which does most of its damage with single-inning outbursts.

Last Friday against Tillamook, the Braves blew open the game with a nine-run second inning, going on to win 10-2. Earlier in the week against Astoria, it was a six-run third inning that paved the way to a 9-4 victory.

Banks lost 8-2 to Tillamook on Monday to slip into second place, but five games remain on the league schedule and the Braves (10-9, 7-3) are in prime position to unseat seven-time defending champion Astoria (12-6, 8-2). The teams split their first two games and will square off again on May 8.

“At the beginning of the year I knew we had a lot of talent. But one of the things we always talk about is that potential and talent don’t mean anything unless you bust your butt in practice,” Ackerman said. “It’s been slow, but we’re starting to use our talent to play good baseball.

“We’re playing closer to our potential, but we’re still nowhere near where we need to be to win the league.”

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