Little League, big drama

SOUTH RANGE – Six innings couldn’t hold this kind of drama. Not seven, eight or nine.

It was a ’10’ in 10, and when it was over, Ishpeming advanced in the winner’s bracket of the District 11 Little League Major (age 11-12) division tournament Tuesday with a 3-2 walk-off victory over Portage Lake.

A glance at the scorebook reveals Otto Swanson was the hero of the day. His single to right drove in Taylor Laurin with the winning run, and his no-doubt blast to center field rescued Ishpeming when it was down to its last two outs in the bottom of the eighth. A long look at the field throughout Tuesday’s classic showed it was much harder to find a Man of the Match for either side.

“I told them that it took every single player on this team to win the game. We had ups and we had downs. Everybody came back and they fought back and won,” Ishpeming manager P.J. Pruett said.

It started out as a pitcher’s duel between Portage Lake fireballer Colton Salani and Ishpeming hurler A.J. Suardini. Both maxed out their pitch counts, Suardini lasting an impressive 7 2/3 innings, but it ended up getting settled by the narrowest of margins.

“There’s nothing to be ashamed of in that game. Those boys played hard. They battled for 10 innings against a very good baseball team. We’re proud of those boys, they should keep their heads up. We’re not out. We’re not out. We’re still in this. We can compete and I’ve been here before. We did this last year and we’re going to have to do it again if we want to keep going,” PL manager Aaron Janke said.

Laurin led off the 10th inning with a single and was sacrificed to second by Zack Niemi. PL decided to walk Suardini intentionally, but Laurin stole third on the last ball. PL considered walking Swanson to load the bases, but the max-effort lefty lined the first pitch he saw into right field on one hop for the win.

That would have been dramatic enough a finish, but consider the scripts left on the cutting-room floor:

In the bottom of the ninth, Owen Morton’s deep fly to center was rescued back into play by Portage Lake centerfielder Ashton Janke.

In the bottom of the eighth, Swanson got all of a 1-2 curve that bailed his team out after confusion over a dropped third strike extended the top of the inning, allowing Portage Lake’s P.J. Donnelly to score on a passed ball.

PL pitcher Salani struck out 12 in 4 2/3 innings and scored the only run of the first 5 1/2 innings when his single to left got to the fence, putting him in position to score on Donnelly’s single.

Down to their last at-bat, Suardini, who pitched a regulation complete game in 63 pitches, leads off with a double to the fence, scores, and trots back out to the mound for more after reliever Taylor Gardner strikes out the side to stem the threat.

Ishpeming gets a day to rest before facing Marquette Thursday at 5 p.m. for a spot in the championship game. Both Laurin and Swanson led the Ishpeming offense with two hits apiece. Garrett Mann was the winning pitcher in relief.

Portage Lake must go through the elimination bracket, starting with a 5 p.m. game today against Baraga County. Donnelly was the only PL player with two hits. Davin Hill took the loss.

“I’m hoping we’re going to hit the ball a little better. We only scored two runs. They pitched well, but we got into their bullpen and I thought we had some opportunities to score guys on third and we just didn’t get a break there,” Janke said.