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Casa Grande baseball is sitting in the catbird seat, but you’d never know it by talking to the Gauchos.

Casa opens the North Bay League tournament at home Wednesday as the No. 1 seed and the league’s automatic entry into the North Coast Section tournament.

They don’t need these next couple of games, like, say their opponent, No. 4 seed Rancho Cotate, needs them. But you are not hearing that from the Gauchos.

Ask them and these next two outings are critical. Critical to fine-tuning things, critical to keeping arms loose and bats hot and critical to momentum.

“We have been pushing them and pushing them to be better every time they go out there,” first-year Casa coach Chad Fillinger said.

Yes, they have already won the NBL pennant by going 12-2. Yes, they have already gained entry to the NCS Division 2 tournament with their league title and 18-6 record. But it’s a mighty big no when you ask whether the Gauchos are looking past Rancho and ahead to the section playoffs.

“Rancho is a very, very good team with a very good pitcher,” Fillinger said. “They can beat you.”

But they haven’t yet.

Casa beat Rancho 3-0 on April 13 and 4-3 May 9. But even a talented pitcher like Rancho senior Joey Kramer is at a disadvantage when batters as talented as the Gauchos see your stuff for a third time.

“We have been preparing for Kramer,” Casa’s junior shortstop Joe Lampe said. “Our goal is to get out early in the first.”

Kramer is the real thing for the 14-10 Cougars. He has started nine games on the season and has an ERA of 1.64. For good measure, he is also hitting a very respectable .324.

“They are a strong defensive team who is going to make us try and beat ourselves,” Lampe said.

And the matchup is a good one, and an important one, because while the Gauchos want to put on a good show for the section selection committee, so too, do the Cougars. They are both Division 2 squads.

Heading into Wednesday’s game, the Gauchos are ranked No. 3 among Division 2 teams in the section, behind Alameda at No. 1 and Northgate at No. 2. Fellow NBL team Maria Carrillo is No. 5, crosstown rival Petaluma is No. 6 and Rancho is 11.

The lower seeds will be looking to claw their way up, while the Gauchos are looking to cement their place near the top.

“The ultimate goal is to win these next two games to get home-field advantage in NCS,” Lampe said. “Just put ourselves in good position for the second seed, just keep the train rolling and keep the offense at its peak.”

Lampe is hitting a solid .373, behind University of Oregon-bound senior A.J. Miller’s .395. Junior catcher Cameron Downing is hitting .344.

“We just want to win and keep on rolling and keep doing what we are doing, having the same mindset,” Downing said.

Doing what they are doing is working.

Two factors bode well for the Gauchos going into the postseason: They beat Northgate 9-8 on April 21, and they have the highest strength-ofschedule ranking among the top 11 teams.

The bad news? They lost to current No. 5 Carrillo 5-2 on May 5 and dropped their game back in March to Petaluma, 7-2. Silver lining? The Gauchos beat Petaluma 20-7 on Saturday.

So if the Gauchos get past Rancho Wednesday and No. 2 Maria Carrillo bests No. 3 Cardinal Newman, Casa would be doubly inspired to avenge their most recent loss against Carrillo in the championship game.

But that is getting ahead of things — and Fillinger is not about that. He said it’s his job to keep the Gauchos mindful of their long-term goals while not letting the immediate goal in front of them — posting a win — slip away.

“I teach these kids … have an edge all the time,” he said.

“For us, it’s about momentum,” he said. “We have been playing great lately. But it’s real easy to come out flat. I’m trying to challenge these guys to come out and compete.”

And a slip-up at this point is more damaging than one six weeks ago. Fillinger has been trying to impart a “win-or-go-home” attitude among his crew.

Especially because to Fillinger’s mind, Division 2 is loaded.

“There are some really good teams. Northgate and an Alameda team that only has one loss. It’s very good,” he said. “Unless we run into a juggernaut, then I think we have a really good chance.”

No, the league tournament doesn’t mean as much on paper to the Gauchos as it does perhaps to Rancho, but the Gauchos’ collective mission is to eliminate any wiggle room and leave nothing to chance.

“Let’s give them a reason to give us the higher seed,” Fillinger said.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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