SOUTH RANGE - In a tight, tense game between two even teams like the Copper Country was treated to Wednesday at South Range Park with the Keweenaw and Negaunee Major (11-12 years old) Little League squads, one moment of excellence is often all that separates victory and defeat.
For instance, in the top of the seventh both teams can point to Keweenaw's Landon Johnson's liner to center as the difference in the District 11 tournament elimination game.
With the score knotted at two and teammate Carter Crouch on first base in the first extra inning, Johnson got a hold of one traveling right in line with the center fielder. The crowd waited on baited breath, with Crouch poised between first and second reading the play.
Keweenaw’s Caleb Gregoire makes the catch in the outfield late in Wednesday’s District 11 Major (age 11-12)?Little League tournament game against Negaunee in South Range. Keweenaw won 4-2 in seven innings. (DMG photo by Michael Bleach)
If Negaunee catches it, there are two outs and a good chance to get out of the inning unscathed.
Instead, the ball had just enough carry to get over the top of the defense to the fence - missing the glove by inches - and Johnson's drive goes down as an RBI triple and a game-changer. Johnson was driven in himself on an infield single from Cole Gregiore the next play, giving Keweenaw a 4-2 lead they would make stick for the victory.
"Landon Johnson has been coming up with big hits for us in all three games," Keweenaw coach Adam Loukus said. "That was another big one from him. That's a tricky play for the center fielder to read with a ball hit that hard right at him.
"A great, great team victory for us. The guys really stayed mentally strong the whole game."
"Hang your heads high guys," Negaunee coach Dan Waterman told his players after the game. "There's no shame in this one, we battled right to the bitter end."
Negaunee twice had one-run leads they weren't able to make stick.
With Crouch dealing on the mound from the start - 10 strikeouts in five innings - scoring was at a premium and Negaunee felt good to scratch one out in the third.
Alex Munson reached base on an error, and after a stolen base, was driven in by Jason Waterman to take the lead.
Keweenaw responded in the fifth, however, with Gabe Coppo reaching on a hit by pitch and Sam Erkkila scoring him in a perfectly weighted bunt single.
The visitors took the lead one more time in the bottom of the fifth, with Munson again crossing the plate after belting a triple.
This time it was Dean Loukus' bunt single that did the damage, however, driving in Cole Gregoire to send the game into extra innings. Keweenaw's fundamentally executed bunts twice put the Negaunee defense in no-man's land, unsure whether to throw home or to first.
"We've had to scratch and claw some runs here with the bats not quite heated up yet," Adam Loukus said. "The guys did a great job executing in those spots when they needed to."
In the early contest, Portage Lake brought the bats out in a big way to defeat Baraga County 13-9 and book another elimination game today with Keweenaw.
PL belted nine hits and drew seven free passes to pounce on Baraga early, plating 12 runs in the first three innings.
Ashton Janke scored three times and chipped in two hits, including a triple.
Noah Bach provided the power and a capper with a solo home run to right-center in the sixth inning, and Jimmy Pietila managed a double as well.
"We hit the ball better today, which was a pretty big deal, because you need to give Baraga credit, they hit the ball too and they challenged us," Portage Lake coach Aaron Janke said. "That was a fun game, a tough game."
The wins set up a familiar contest today in South Range between Portage Lake and Keweenaw.
Both coaches were looking forward to the matchup between Copper Country rivals.
"They are a tough, tough defensive team," Janke said of Keweenaw. "We are going to have to earn whatever we get."
"It's something we look forward to, playing your rivals in an elimination game," Loukus said. "I think we are both running out of our top pitchers, so it will be interesting to see who has more depth and who can make the plays."