“You can erase this whole season ... by what you do in the next two weeks,” said Pioneers manager Jason Borders.
A nine-game losing streak was stopped on the season’s final game, an 8-2 win over Miles City Saturday.
Four of the seven teams in the tournament will advance to state and Powell has a favorable path to the championship game.
Two Northeast Division teams stand between the Pioneers and an automatic bid to the state tournament (July 30-Aug. 3 in Laramie). Powell wouldn’t have to face Cody, which Borders calls the best Single A team in Wyoming, until a possible championship game matchup.
The Pioneers open against the Casper Drillers at 4 p.m. today, a game that was pushed back from 1 p.m. to allow Powell’s coaches, players and fans to attend Jim Stringer’s memorial service Thursday morning.
Powell was 2-1 against Casper (24-17, 5-5 Northeast) this season. The Pioneers won 13-1 June 18 in Casper and 13-3 June 21 in Powell. The loss to the Drillers came in a wild 17-16 game June 18 in which Powell committed 10 errors to cough the game away.
A win would send Powell to the semifinals where they would meet a rested Douglas Cats (30-24, 9-3 Northeast) team that earned a first-round bye.
Despite the teams’ records and tournament seeds, Powell held the upper hand over the Cats in their two regular season meetings.
The Pioneers outscored the Cats by a combined 31-13 in a June 17 doubleheader in Douglas.
Matt Brown pitched a complete game and Zander Andreasen was 4-for-5 with a triple and four RBIs in an 11-5 game 1 victory. Hayden Cragoe hit two home runs, Jared Wantulok hit one and Carson Asher pitched all seven innings as the Pioneers routed the Cats 20-8 in game 2.
That Powell could beat Douglas with relative ease without using one of their top pitchers is encouraging, but the Pioneers also didn’t face Cats starter and 2013 All-State player Marvin Malone.
“I think we can beat Malone,” Borders said. “I think we hit the ball better than Torrington.”
Malone was roughed up by Torrington in a 12-1 loss July 13.
“I think they’re beatable,” Borders said. “Which would set us up for the state tournament, and then Cody in the championship game.”
Powell’s offense has had its moments this season but hasn’t produced consistently enough to be relied upon to carry the Pioneers through the postseason.
The Pioneers might have to do it with their pitching.
“Pitching-wise I think we’re a lot deeper than we were last year,” Borders said.
Borders said Wednesday he will likely start Grady Sanders in the tourney opener against Casper.
Sanders gave up just two runs (on a two-run home run) over six innings in Saturday’s win over Miles City.
“Grady threw the ball really well against a good hitting team last week,” Borders said.
If Sanders starts it will be on four days rest, something Borders said could benefit the pitcher.
“He just seems to throw better on short rest,” Borders said. “We usually try to give him five but when his arm is a little tired he seems to have more control.”
Sanders is tied for second on the Pioneers with 22 walks through 32.2 innings. Cory Heny issued 22 free passes over 51.2 innings.
Throwing Sanders in game 1 allows Powell to save one of its top two pitchers for a potential championship game, but won’t risk wasting its best arms in a tournament-costing move.
If Sanders and the Pioneers lose to Casper they will receive a bye in the consolation bracket and have Friday off. A win at 1 p.m. Saturday would send Powell to the third-place game and guarantee the squad a spot at state.
Heny (2.30 ERA over 51.2 innings) and Ty Whiteman (4.17 ERA over 52 innings) would be available to pitch in either or both consolation games.
Matt Brown, Bryce Wright and Matt Sweet “will probably throw” too, Borders said.
“I have a lot of confidence in Carson (Asher) too. And Matt Sweet beat Grand Junction,” Borders said.
If Sanders repeats his Saturday performance and the Pioneers beat Casper, Heny and Whiteman would give Powell the best chance to advance to, and win, the North District title game.
No matter what the path is, Borders said he just wants to end up at state.
“We just gotta qualify,” Borders said. “We get our two wins and punch our ticket and we’ll worry about how everything plays out later.”
Wright has been a welcome addition to the lineup since returning from a knee injury last weekend. The left-handed first baseman was 19-for-41 (.463) with a home run and 14 RBIs in an injury-plagued regular season.
Opposite Powell in the bracket sits a matchup between the Cheyenne Hawks (13-23, 5-5 Northeast) and Lovell Mustangs (7-29, 1-7). The host Cody Cubs (37-14, 8-0 Northwest) open against the Wheatland Lobos (12-27, 3-9).
The Cubs are the only team on their side of the bracket to own a winning record and are the heavy favorites to advance into the title game.
“To see Cody in the championship wouldn’t be a surprise,” Borders said.
And though Powell was 0-5 against the Cubs this season, Borders said there’s reason to believe his team could beat the Park County rivals.
“We had them in both those games last weekend,” Borders said. “To me we’re right there.”
Powell lost 9-6 to Cody in the first game of a doubleheader July 17 and then committed nine errors to let go of a 10-1 fifth-inning lead to lose 17-11 in game 2.
“I think Cody is probably the best team in the state,” Borders said. “You look at their record, you look at what they’ve done ... but we should have beat them three out of four times.”
Borders said the Pioneers focused on defense in the three days of practice leading up to the district tournament.
“If we figure it out, we’ll be good,” he said.
Heny will start at third with Sanders on the mound and Hayden Cragoe will resume his work at shortstop to provide Powell with a steady left side of the infield. Sweet will start at second though Borders said Ezra Andreasen may get some playing time there as well, and Wright will share time with Brown at first.
With Heny in the infield Brendon Phister will take center field, with Zander Andreasen, Tegan Cordes, Brown, Asher and Dillon Nix available to flank him on either side.
Jared Wantulok, as always, will anchor the defense behind the plate.
Powell would likely face Cheyenne, Lovell and/or Wheatland only in a potential consolation bracket game. The top two teams from each bracket qualify for state.
Powell is 3-1 against the Mustangs, who dealt the Pioneers a devastating 6-5 loss June 26 that virtually ended any chance of Powell winning the Northwest.
The Pioneers did not meet Cheyenne or Wheatland this season.