They were teammates as 8-year-olds, opponents a few years later. One got serious about pitching in high school, the other practically was born to it.
Kennewick’s Jarrod Molnaa and Clayten Ayres have traveled divergent paths, but together they make up the best one-two pitching punch in the Mid-Columbia Conference.
Today, they will lead the Lions in the first step of what they hope is a repeat trip to state, and a few steps further.
“We expected them to be very good, and obviously they’ve had great seasons,” said Kennewick coach A.J. Marquardt, who has guided the Lions to four state berths in his 12 years, including the program’s only title in 2008.
Whether it is Molnaa or Ayres who steps on the mound for Kennewick (17-3) in today’s 4 p.m. regional game with Rogers (3-17) at Roy Johnson Field, the Lions will have full faith that their season won’t come to an early ending in the loser-out contest.
Both turned in outstanding senior seasons. Ayres finished the regular season with a 6-1 record and 2.93 ERA, striking out 39 and walking 17 in 48 innings. Only once did he allow more than two earned runs in a start, two weeks ago against Southridge. He also batted .365 with 15 RBIs and 16 runs score while hitting cleanup. He started at third base when he didn’t pitch.
Molnaa has been even tougher on the mound, turning in the best season in the league. He is 5-0 with a 0.98 ERA, giving up just 31 hits and 13 walks in 50 innings while striking out 54.
In his 10 starts, he has been tagged with more than one earned run just once, giving up two in a win against Kamiakin in March.
The strikeouts, he said, are just the fruit of getting ahead in counts.
“When I step up on the mound, I’m not trying to just strike every hitter out,” he said. “You’ve seen our defense. Our outfield is insane — there’s not a better outfield in the league. And our infield in the same. I trust them 100 percent.”
Molnaa’s ascendancy to the MCC elite has come in a short time. He said he really didn’t take pitching seriously until his sophomore year, when he gave up being a shortstop and worked extensively with Doc Marquardt, A.J.’s dad, to fix his mechanics.
“From sophomore year to now, I’ve made leaps and bounds mechanically,” Molnaa said. “I was a mechanical mess, an arm injury waiting to happen.”
After spending time as the team’s No. 4 pitcher that season, he became the No. 2 starter last year, often with Ayres coming on in relief.
Ayres, on the other hand, ironed out his pitching form years ago under the tutelage of his dad, Lenny Ayres, a star himself at Kennewick who was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in 1989 and played three years in their organization.
“I’ve been pitching since I started,” Clayten Ayres said. “It’s nice that I’ve had the advantage of having a dad I can go to to fix whatever.”
Not that it has been a easy ride for Ayres, who took nine months off from pitching during his sophomore year with tendinitis in his elbow.
And now, Lenny Ayres is available for all the Kennewick pitchers as the team’s pitching coach, and he and Doc have helped develop a staff that includes reliable relievers Colton Plew, a junior, and promising freshman Matt Driver.
“We did a program evaluation a couple years ago, what we needed to be successful in the postseason,” A.J. Marquardt said. “Develop pitching was the No. 1 thing. It’s a huge program emphasis. It started in the regular season last year, all through the summer, the offseason stuff, developing a pitching staff.”
It’s paying off handsomely now, with the Lions poised perhaps better than any other team to deal with playoff doubleheaders.
The veteran club is taking aim at another run to state and getting past the quarterfinals, where they lost 2-0 to Kamiakin last season as the rival Braves went on to win the Class 3A state title.
Molnaa started that game and threw great, Ayres finished and also was up to the task. But they and their teammates have been talking about that day for almost a year now.
“You don’t know how many times we’ve used that as motivation this year,” Molnaa said.
Added Ayres: “It’s not, ‘Crap, we lost.’ But it makes you work that much harder in the weight room, that much harder in practice. We want to get back to that game and move on.”
As league champs and the top seeds headed into the postseason, the Lions have plenty of expectations. In Molnaa’s case, he is particularly pleased to be on the side of the baseball heavy, and not up against it.
See, Molnaa went to Park Middle School, while most of the Kennewick players matriculated through Horse Heaven Hills. And Park got creamed back in the day, though Molnaa managed to get a little payback on Ayres once.
“Yeah, they were a lot better, but I pegged him in the head in the seventh grade,” Molnaa said. “I wasn’t pitching (seriously) then. I was just the only one on the team who knew how to play baseball.”
Was it a ‘charge the mound’ moment for Ayres? Nah.
“I just looked at him,” Ayres said, “and he started to laugh.”
The two were friends before, and they are better friends now. Both signed to play ball next year at Walla Walla Community College. Ayres, an all-area center for the football team, had some options on the grid iron but said baseball is in his blood.
But what is on their mind right now is the playoffs. And the senior-laden Lions are not planning to let up any time soon.
“During the regular season, if one guy takes a play off, Jarrod can come back and strike the next guy out,” Ayres said. “Now, you can’t do that. If you take one play off, one pitch off, they’ll make you play. Other teams are just as good as us.”
Maybe. But matching up on the mound? Now that’s a tall order.