As North Eugene's Johny Lari jogged to first base, having been issued Ian Kendall's fourth walk of the game to put runners at first and second with nobody out in the top of the sixth, Ashland coach Don Senestraro turned to his assistant coaches and asked what everybody else at Volcanoes Stadium must have been thinking:
"Well, whadya think?"
As in, is it time to pull Kendall?
The answers came mostly in the form of nods. Yes, he was done, all right, but it's hard to blame Senestraro for walking up to the top step of Ashland's dugout, stopping, considering it again and finally deciding to stick with his ace.
Could Brady Thomas, who warmed up an inning prior, have kept the scoreless tie going into the seventh, and beyond, in the Class 5A state championship game Saturday, perhaps allowing the Grizzlies a few more cracks at Highlanders' ace Andrew Moore? Maybe. But, as Senestraro pointed out earlier in the playoffs, Kendall, even a tired Kendall, is always three pitches away from getting his defense off the field. And let's face it, if you have a guy who can throw a bowling ball through the Great Wall of China, has played in the American Legion World Series and whose competitive fire is visible from outer space, it's probably best to just give him the ball and thank God he's on your side.
Turns out, that defining moment of Saturday's championship game served as the perfect microcosm of the Grizzlies' wild playoff run. Nobody knew what to expect. Senior pitcher Lucas Stone was shelled by Thurston in the quarterfinals, then redeemed himself by hitting what turned out to be a season-saving grand slam. One round later Ashland took a 5-2 lead over Madras into the seventh inning before sweating out a 5-4 victory, finally advancing thanks to a throw by shortstop Nick Hall that averted a tie game by about three millimeters.
Kendall's feast or famine routine only added to the Grizzlies' drama. He could walk three straight batters to create a bases-loaded jam, strike out the next three batters on 10 pitches then casually walk off the field as if Grandma Cook called him in for supper.
And by the way, for those who were too wrapped up in the game to notice, what Kendall did Saturday will go down as one of the most remarkable performances by an Ashland High athlete — in any sport. Ever.
Overstatement? No way. When he took the mound against North Eugene, Kendall was four days removed from his first-ever complete game, that exhausting 115-pitch effort against Madras. Honestly, after that performance how many Grizzly fans actually thought Kendall would make it out of the third inning? I talked to a few before the game, and if I had to take a poll the results would be somewhere between 15 percent and "are you insane?"
Yet there he was, swatting away Highlanders like a wounded gladiator making his final stand against an army of Lilliputians.
Runners at second and third in the third inning? Whack. Bases loaded in the fourth? Bam. Bases loaded in the fifth? Woosh. Throughout those three grueling innings Kendall had the weight of an entire season resting squarely on his shoulders, and he handled it like the pro that he'll soon be. Three jams, three strikeouts. Finally in the sixth, North Eugene broke through, but it took two crucial errors and a very iffy call that cost Ashland a potential double play to finally bring down Kendall.
After the loss, an emotional Senestraro had to step away from a postgame interview and take a moment to gather himself. This team meant a lot to him, and it's easy to see why.
Unlike the previous two Ashland baseball juggernauts, the 2010 Grizzlies entered the season with a long list of question marks: Could sophomores Billy Hansen and Ethan Schlecht hold down half of Ashland's infield? Could Jake Scarminach come back from a year away from baseball and take over the most important position on the field behind the plate? Would Stone and Thomas be as good on the mound during the high school season as they were during last summer's American Legion season?
The answer, in every case, turned out to be "yes."
Then, there were a few surprises.
Hansen and Schlecht turned out to be far more than serviceable — they were absolutely irreplaceable as two of Ashland's best hitters, for power and average. Luke Baldrica, like his older brother Owen back in 2008, emerged as the best overall batter in the Southern Sky Conference. Stone and Thomas gave the Grizzlies, along with Kendall, three aces capable of shutting down most 5A opponents. Brent Hegdahl found a home at third base. Nick Hall built a wall at short (is there a better defensive shortstop in the state? Doubt it).
And then there was Kendall, who entered the season as a rocket-launching enigma, both on the mound and at the plate, and ended it by "… well, you know the rest.
The Tampa Bay Rays liked Kendall enough to make him a fifth-round draft pick Tuesday. According to Rays scout Paul Kirsch, Ashland's big gun not only possesses the physical tools to be a Major League pitcher, but also has a "bulldog mentality."
"When he's in a jam," Kirsch said, "he gets tougher."
It's an Ashland thing.
Tidings sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 482-3456 x224, or at firstname.lastname@example.org