Scrutinize all the baseball teams Crater head coach Jay Campbell has fielded during his 13-year run with the Comets and this year’s version likely wouldn’t get the nod on paper as one of the best.
Fortunately, games are played on the field, and the 2018 Crater Comets ultimately will go down as one of Campbell’s top groups for what they were able to accomplish Saturday in the Class 5A state championship at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer.
With faith, determination and the kind of camaraderie that only grew stronger in the face of adversity, the Comets (25-6) joined Campbell’s 2007 crew in being able to call themselves state champions.
And deservedly so.
Crater seemed destined to win the crown last year before being denied by Churchill, and with only Larson Kindreich, Nick Bastendorff and Trae Frodge returning from the 2017 starting lineup, the general thought leading into the season was that the Comets would be good but a repeat trip to the state finals might be a tall order to fill.
Heck, in the aforementioned trio only Kindreich and Bastendorff were among last year’s batting order in the state final, with Frodge’s duties in right field only.
As a reminder, it was Frodge who plated Kindreich’s pinch runner (Payton Anhorn) and Bastendorff with a sixth-inning double to decide Saturday’s 2-0 triumph over top-seeded Crescent Valley.
“I’m in a little bit of a state of shock to be honest with you,” Campbell said with the 5A championship trophy firmly in his grasp. “That’s the game of baseball and it is really hard to get back (to the championship) in the game of baseball, it really is. You just have to have some breaks go your way and you’ve just got to work really hard. These guys, they worked really hard all year long.”
“You can only say that you have the expectation or you have the dream to get here,” he added, “but you don’t ever really know if it’s going to happen. You want to have that thought and that process of putting it in their brain of we’re going back to where we were before, but let’s be honest, we only had three kids that were here that played on the field last year.”
Fortunately, Campbell said, he had willing, hard-working players to mold and the right coaching staff to do it in assistants Jim Powell, John Campbell, Tony Cobb, Evan Erskine, Brian Diatte and Joe Hagler.
“It’s just a tribute to my coaching staff and just the way that they’ve gotten these kids ready,” Campbell said of returning to the state final and seizing the opportunity. “We have the best coaching staff around and I just can’t thank them enough. I’ve had a lot of really good teams that never got past the semis or that type of stuff so the game is a funny game and fickle, and we were able to put a good run together and we’re very fortunate to beat a great team today.”
For what it’s worth, the Comets also had a “rally gnome” along the way in the dugout for a little luck, and the lawn figurine meant so much to them that they almost missed their state trophy presentation because they were too busy getting a postgame picture with the good-luck charm.
KINDREICH’S INFLUENCE on Saturday’s game cannot go overstated, with the senior left-hander striking out 14 and allowing six hits with three walks and one hit batter to run his consecutive scoreless innings streak to 43?2/3 innings in closing a stellar season.
“He’s something else,” said Frodge of his teammate. “He’s like a robot, he’s cyborg. He’s just always going out there being dominant.”
Even though Crescent Valley (28-3) snapped Kindreich’s streak of consecutive hitless innings at 37 on Saturday and had him on the ropes with two bases-loaded jams and a runner on third base in two other innings, there was no denying the Crater standout on Saturday.
Kindreich said he struggled to get comfortable on the mound for the first few innings, but he always found a way to dial up big pitches when it mattered most.
“I have to keep it simple so in my mind all I was thinking was they’re not scoring,” he said after improving his record to 9-2. “I just tried to execute pitches, keep the ball in the infield and see what happens.”
Crescent Valley head coach Ryan Starwalt lamented his team’s inability to get that key hit to break through against Crater, but he also was quick to lend praise on what attributed to that issue.
“Part of it is Larson’s so good,” said Starwalt. “You’re not going to square a bunch of balls up, and when we’d get guys on he went to his curveball more often and there’s just so much depth to it it’s really hard to hit. I thought he got better as the game went on, he just kind of kept coming and coming.”
Both dugouts were fully aware Kindreich only had 13 pitches left on his pitch count when he took the mound in the bottom of the seventh inning, but Starwalt wasn’t about to try and handcuff his players in hopes of maybe forcing a pitching change. The Raiders were also sending their top three hitters to the plate, mind you.
“We’re just not a team that’s going to sit there and take pitches,” said the ninth-year coach. “I want our guys to feel confident that they can hit and get up there and swing the bat. We just stuck with the plan because he wasn’t going to walk people, we were going to have to earn everything we got off of him.”
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Kindreich is committed to Biola University but could hear his name called this week during the Major League Baseball first-year player draft. He finished this season with five no-hitters and a 0.71 ERA after striking out 154 with 22 walks and four hit batters in 69?2/3 innings. He allowed 17 hits and seven earned runs (nine runs overall) all season.
Even without his best stuff Saturday — Kindreich’s fastball topped out at only 84 miles per hour despite reaching 88 mph earlier this year — he was able to back that up with a nasty 70 mph curveball on the next pitch to go with a knee-buckling changeup.
“He got so good with that curveball some of our guys were kind of cheating to it and then they’d get a fastball and swing at a bad pitch,” said Starwalt. “When you face a good pitcher like that, that’s what happens. You have to try to figure out a way to guess right and sometimes you don’t. He was tough to figure out.”
BESIDES FRODGE’S KEY HIT, the senior third baseman also came up with two of the biggest defensive plays Saturday to deny the Raiders.
With the bases loaded in the third inning after the Comets opted to intentionally walk Crescent Valley’s Briley Knight and Nathan Lach to force someone else to beat them, No. 5 hitter Connor Spevacek sent a slow chopper toward Frodge that he ran up on and fired a strike across the diamond to first baseman Garrett Dance in time for the final out.
In the seventh, it was Frodge’s charging effort on a bunt attempt by No. 3 hitter Ben Leid that clinched the shutout victory.
“Trae made a great play there at the end,” said Kindreich, who joined Frodge and sophomore Andy Lacey in getting Crater’s only hits against CV. “I don’t know how he made that play. I’ve been playing with him all year so you’d think I’d know he could, but I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
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