MUSKEGON - The Portage Lake Little League Minor (age 9-10) All-Stars face a winner-take-all game for a spot in the state quarterfinals today after a 1-1 weekend.
They escaped a close shave in their opening pool play game at the state tournament Saturday, scoring four times with two out in the top of the sixth to turn a 5-4 deficit into an 8-5 win over Harper Woods. Sunday, the wheels came off late in a 17-1 loss to group winner Blissfield.
After a fifth-inning solo home run by Gabe Kirck broke a 4-4 tie Saturday, PL had two men on, but was down to its last out. Davin Hill's bloop single dropped into short centerfield, allowing both players to score. He was followed by Austin Salani, who clubbed his second homer of the game to give Portage Lake vital insurance.
"Every time we had our backs against the wall, we were able to answer, which shows a little character for our kids," PL manager Don Hill said.
It was the second major recovery of the game for Portage Lake, which surrendered four runs in the bottom of the first inning.
PL got back into the game quickly, though, as singles from Chad Nordstrom, Emmett Larson and Thomas Bump loaded the bases for Hill, whose single drove in two runs. Just like in the sixth inning, Hill got to trot the rest of the way home after Salani homered to left, tying the game.
The teams played scoreless for a majority of the way until the late drama.
Eli Larson got the win in relief, going the last two innings. Mason Mikesch helped him out by making an excellent play on a potential bloop single that could have brought a run in from second base in the sixth inning. Mikesch started and allowed four runs in 1 2/3 innings and was relieved by Hill, who pitched 2 1/3, allowed the Kirck homer but only two other hits, and struck out five.
Salani finished with three hits and Hill two. Both players had four RBIs.
Sunday's game was much closer than the final score, and was still a 2-1 contest after four innings.
Blissfield scored twice in the top of the third to get on the board, and Portage Lake responded with its only tally of the game in the bottom half. Hill singled, Salani moved him over with a fielder's choice and Mikesch drove him in with an RBI single.
Portage Lake finished with three hits.
After using three pitchers Saturday, Nordstrom gave Portage Lake an innings-eating performance, going into the fifth inning before his outing ended on a bases-loaded triple early in the fifth on the last pitch of his pitch count.
"He kept their best hitters off-balance and he did a very nice job," coach Hill said. "He kept us in the ballgame, he gave us a chance to win."
PL stranded nine runners in the five-inning game, including leaving the bases loaded in the third and fourth innings.
Blissfield, at 3-0, is already into the eight-team single-elimination quarterfinals. The other spot from Pool C will go to the winner of a rain make-up game at noon today between PL and West Portage. The teams had one of four games rained out Friday afternoon.
Because of the make-up games and state rules prohibiting doubleheaders in the age group, the knockout rounds will begin a day later than scheduled on Tuesday.
Still, it could have been worse: two of the first three days of the state Minor girls' softball tournament in Escanaba have been complete washouts, forcing organizers to arrange the 16-team field into a single-elimination bracket.