By Robert Husseman • Sports Editor • 

First in the order

Repetition of technique and delivery is the most prized ability in sports, and baseball embraces repetition within its schedule. Hitters may only receive three at-bats in a game; pitchers may last as few as one plate appearance and as many as 40.

Accordingly, baseball seasons are long, jam-packed and occasionally monotonous. Good high school teams play 30 or more games in a three-month span. Minor league seasons last as few as 75 games and as many as 140. Major League Baseball plays 162 regular-season contests.

The baseball players who make plays the same way, day after day, performing at a high level, are the ones who continue to advance.

“To tell the truth, it’s really not that bad,” McMinnville junior Zach Rhoads says. “We have more practices than games; practices are usually the hardest ones. When you come to games, it’s always fun to just go play. You don’t have to worry about homework; you just focus on the game.”

Rhoads, the 2014 News-Register All-Valley Baseball Player of the Year, maintained his focus throughout McMinnville’s run to the Class 6A state quarterfinals. He started in center field and hit first in the Grizzlies’ batting order in all 29 Mac baseball games this year.

Rhoads batted .429 this season and boasted a .509 on-base percentage (meaning: he reached base once in every two at-bats) and a .551 slugging percentage. He was second on the Grizzlies in all three categories but led Mac with 120 plate appearances – batting leadoff gave him ample opportunity to sink or swim.

Rhoads scored 27 runs, more than any other McMinnville player. He walked 13 times (third on his team) and amassed a team-high 42 hits (including a team-high 10 extra-base hits). Rhoads also stole a team-high eight bases – and, reward coming from risk, was caught stealing a team-high three times.

The Grizzlies excelled offensively as a team (.323 batting average, .406 on-base percentage), and Rhoads, the consummate leadoff hitter, set the tone game after game.

“From a baseball standpoint, he is a coach’s dream in the leadoff spot,” Harlow says. “He’s smart. He knows how to get on base, he knows how to work counts, he knows how to pick up pitchers’ tendencies. You kind of take him for granted. He just does such a good job getting on base, finding ways to score just like the leadoff hitter should.

“And then, he’s such a good teammate, coming back to the dugout and giving guys information. He does all the right things in that sense.”

The McMinnville baseball field at Patton Middle School was regarded as one of the most cavernous parks in the Class 6A Pacific Conference and will likely retain that reputation in the Class 6A Greater Valley Conference next spring. The center field fence is marked at 375 feet. Rhoads – listed during football season at 5-foot-7 and 160 pounds – ably patrolled Mac’s grass outfield at home and scarcely wavered defensively on the road.

“Defensively, he really jumps out at you,” Harlow says. “And it really -- I don’t know if jumps out is the right (phrase) because it’s more one of those things where a ball’s hit and you’re going, ‘Shoot, that’s going to be two (bases) or something,’ and he runs it down. Doesn’t even have to dive.”

For Rhoads, the biggest challenge entering the 2013 season was mental, not physical. He took classes with Frank Baumholtz at MVP Performance Training in McMinnville on his mental approach – and how to sustain it, game after game, as the season exacted its toll.

“Baseball’s definitely a mental sport,” Rhoads says. “Last year, we were kind of like that team to be down on ourselves.
“I really wanted to work on staying positive through that stuff because you’re going to make one out of 10 errors – you’re not going to make many errors. Hitting – that’s a game you’re going to lose. (You can hit a ball) three out of 10 times, and you’re still a great player.”

As a team, the Grizzlies exhibited a loose and confident demeanor, which helped them play above and beyond their skill level at times. McMinnville finished second to Tualatin in Pacific Conference play with a 12-5 record; the Timberwolves, the only team to defeat the Grizzlies twice in 2014, knocked Mac out in the 6A quarterfinals in Tualatin.

The loss irks Rhoads still – he believes the Grizzlies were a much better team than the 9-2 outcome of that May 30 game showed. Eight seniors who began the year on the baseball roster have graduated – only two, utilityman Jacob Bannister and catcher Garret Adams – were full-time position players. All of the Grizzlies’ top four starting pitchers return.
The future is bright for Mac baseball. It remains bright for Rhoads, the most consistent of them all.

“That’s the thing is, he can improve,” Harlow says. “That middle toward the end of the year, he had a little slump. That’s just baseball. Offensively, we’re going to work on him in terms of getting a little more power. He’s already got that consistency factor in terms of on-base percentage and hitting. So now, if we can incorporate a little bit of that slugging, that’s the next step for him.

“Defensively – he’s about as sharp as they get defensively.”

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