ANALYSIS: Breaking down the teams in the Cascade Conference baseball tournament

May 1—The field is set and the Cascade Conference postseason will begin at 1 p.m. on Saturday.

The Lewis-Clark State baseball team is all but guaranteed a spot in the NAIA Opening Round bracket in Lewiston. But for the rest of the field, Oregon Tech, British Columbia and Bushnell, there's another spot up for grabs.

The auto-bid in the conference will go to the postseason tournament champions, or the runners-up if the Warriors win the tournament.

Last season, the Thunderbirds earned the Opening Round bid.

Coaches and players this season have pointed out that the Cascade Conference has improved as a whole. Last year, British Columbia fell in the Opening Round, but not before pushing eventual World Series champions Westmont (Calif.) to extra innings. This year, the regular-season conference championship came down to the final weekend of the season.

Outside of LCSC, which has more World Series titles than anybody (19), the rest of the Cascade Conference has something to prove to the rest of the NAIA.

Here's a breakdown for every team heading into the Cascade Conference tournament:

No. 1 Lewis-Clark State

Record: 35-9 overall, 21-3 Cascade Conference

Record against the field: 15-5

The Warriors are the clear-cut favorites and are carrying a 16-game winning streak heading into the tournament.

The Warriors' offense and pitching has come together as the season has progressed. The team is scoring 8.7 runs per game and is letting up 3.6 runs per game.

LCSC has eight players hitting .290 or better and starting pitchers Shane Spencer and Drake George both have over a 27% strikeout percentage.

The bullpen in Games 3 and 4 of a series or stretch have had some rough outings, but they've also had some good mixed in. Whether they can be consistent will be something to keep an eye out for.

The lone team the Warriors might have a question mark facing it is Oregon Tech. The Owls are the only team LCSC doesn't have a winning record against. Oregon Tech split a four-game series against the Warriors, with one of those wins being a 13-3 mercy-rule win on March 30.

But LCSC is also undefeated at home. The Warriors' unblemished record at Harris Field and their current win streak, which is the longest active one in the NAIA, should make them favorites in every game this tournament. It will also mean they will have the biggest target on their back.

No. 2 Oregon TechRecord: 34-16 overall, 18-6 Cascade ConferenceRecord against the field: 7-5

The Owls this season haven't always had the best results, but they're still battle-tested. Earlier in the year, Oregon Tech went down to the Cajun Collision in Sterlington, La., and faced teams such as No. 7 Central Methodist (Mo.) and No. 4 LSU Shreveport. Before that they dropped a four-game series against No. 12 Jessup (Calif.).

The Owls didn't get through those games unscathed, but it might have prepared them for the most crucial point of the year.

Oregon Tech is riding a five-game winning streak, including a four-game sweep against Corban (Ore.) where it averaged nearly 11 runs a game.

Consistency hasn't always been there for the Owls, but their talent is undeniable. Oregon Tech is always a threat on the basepaths (144 steals in 173 attempts). Junior infielder/catcher Tyler Horner is one of the most prolific hitters in the Cascade Conference (.392 average and 14 home runs). The offense is more than capable. But Owls' kryptonite the whole season has been their pitching.

Oregon Tech has one starter averaging less than a 5.00 ERA and only two relievers with more than eight appearances have an ERA below 3.50.

The Owls can go hit-for-hit with any of the other teams in the tournament. But if it comes down to a pitching battle, Oregon Tech will need to either get creative or have some season-best performances from its hurlers to make it to the championship game.

No. 3 British ColumbiaRecord: 30-17 overall, 15-9 Cascade ConferenceRecord against the field: 8-12

The Thunderbirds are a hard team to pin down in the conference tournament. On one hand, they've shown to be more than capable of beating high-quality teams.

They went 3-0 against No. 8 Hope International (Calif.) early in the season. They also won two games against NCAA Division II foes Central Washington.

But British Columbia has been inconsistent when it comes to conference competition. Against the Warriors, it went 0-8 in two series. Against Oregon Tech it went 1-3, and against Bushnell it went 7-1.

Similar to the Owls, the talent is easy to see with the Thunderbirds.

Sean Heppner (5.40 ERA), Ryan Beitel (4.57) and Ryan Heppner (3.21) were considered three of the best pitchers in the Cascade Conference going into the season. Sean Heppner and Beitel may have not had the seasons they wished for, but both have had solid outings — a sign that they're still more than capable of turning it on at any given time.

Ryan Heppner hasn't made an appearance since March 16. If he can return for the postseason, it'll give UBC a big bump in talent on the mound.

The offense has some effective batters. Trent Lenihan is batting .412 this season with 10 home runs and a .476 on-base percentage. Mitchell Middlemiss and Johnny McGill are both .350-plus batters in their own right.

The Thunderbirds have shown, dating back to last postseason, that they're able to go toe-to-toe with the best the NAIA has to offer. They pushed eventual World Series champions Westmont to extra-innings the season prior. Now, it's a question of whether they can play their best baseball at the right time.

No. 4 BushnellRecord: 26-24 overall, 12-12 Cascade ConferenceRecord against the field: 6-14

The Beacons might not have the most impressive record going into the Cascade Conference tournament, but they've shown that they're not to be underestimated.

Bushnell was most recently swept against LCSC, the same team it'll face in the first round of the tournament Saturday. It also took three games and a series off the Warriors earlier in the year.

Bushnell is 1-7 against UBC this season, but split a series against Oregon Tech 2-2. The Beacons are talented enough that they can beat any of the other three teams if everything lines up right.

They have three batters in Albert Jennings, Cade Crist and Jordan Wilson who've hit over 10 home runs this season. Kyle Casperson is batting .413. The lineup is capable of taking the top off anyone.

But Bushnell's pitching owns the lion's share of responsibility for its 24 losses. Only one hurler who's made over 10 appearances is pitching below a 4.00 ERA. That pitcher, Marques Brown, is throwing less than a strikeout an inning and has allowed a .289 batting average this season.

The Beacons' ability lies more in their intangibles. They're not an elite squad on paper, but they're the team that can take a win when not taken seriously.

Bushnell's first game of the tournament is against LCSC, the team it just dropped four straight to. That might give it the motivation it needs to pull off another upset. Or the Beacons can be win No. 17 on the Warriors' current streak. With how the Beacons have played this season, either seems very possible.

Final predictions

LCSC is playing its best baseball at the right time. Even with Oregon Tech's mercy rule against the Warriors on its resume, it's hard to see LCSC dropping a game before the Opening Round. The Warriors should be the favorites to sweep the regular season and postseason Cascade Conference crowns.

As for which team in the field gets the auto-bid, that's tougher to predict. Every team has played against out-of-conference top-25 squads and the Owls are the only ones who don't have a win against a team on the poll (aside from LCSC).

But Oregon Tech is the most battle-tested of the lower three seeds. And even in its losses against squads like Jessup, Central Methodist and LSU Shreveport, it played those teams close.

British Columbia is more than capable of making the championship game and a dark horse run to the title match isn't out of the question for Bushnell. But all signs seem to point toward the Warriors and the Owls representing the Cascade Conference in the NAIA Opening Round.

Kowatsch can be contacted at 208-848-2268, or on Twitter @Teren_Kowatsch.