SOUTH RANGE Only six of Portage Lake's 11 players were eligible to pitch Thursday in an elimination game with Keweenaw at the District 11 Little League Major tournament.
They only needed one.
Taylor Gardner threw a complete-game one-hitter as PL defeated its neighbors 4-0 to reach tonight's elimination bracket finals against Marquette.
Portage Lake pitcher Taylor Gardner delivers in the sixth inning of Thursday’s Little League District 11 Major tournament game against Keweenaw at South Range. Gardner threw a one-hit shutout as Portage Lake advanced with a 4-0 victory. (DMG photo by Brandon Veale)
"Taylor wanted the ball today, of course we didn't have many choices We were lucky Taylor was able to because he pitched great," PL coach Don Hill said (manager Aaron Janke was away on business).
Gardner, who lives in Calumet but derives his eligibility for PL by virtue of being a Houghton student, took a little time to get settled. He walked the leadoff man and gave up a hard-hit fly ball for the first out, but from then on, the only hit Keweenaw managed was an infield single by Brevin Antilla to lead off the fifth inning. Even then, shortstop Colton Salani went deep in the hole to his right and came within a step of throwing him out.
"That's just what he does. He throws that first-pitch strike, he gets ahead and then he gets batters trying to guess what he's going to throw and that's tough when you're guessing," Hill said.
That first-inning play, in which leftfielder Colin Cowell snared a slicing liner off the bat of Sam Erkkila that would have almost certainly scored Carter Crouch had it landed, may have set the rest of the shutout in motion.
"He doesn't catch that and this is a whole different game. We're playing from behind and everything changes at that point. That catch by Colin, although it was the first out of the game for us defensively, was maybe the biggest," Hill said.
Like PL, Keweenaw was playing its fourth game in four days, but the visitors also got strong work from Cole Gregoire, who held PL off the board until the third, when P.J. Donnelly singled in Jimmy Pietila.
In the fourth, Lars Massie was hit by a pitch, and special pinch runner Jackson Rocchi scored on a wild pitch. After a bunt single, Gardner came in on Ashton Janke's single and Davin Hill scored a third run on a wild pitch.
That left it for Gardner to finish off, and though he allowed two baserunners in the sixth, he finished with a strikeout on his last possible batter before the pitch count limit kicked in. His final line included nine strikeouts against just two walks in 91 pitches.
"We couldn't get settled, comfortable in the batter's box. Taylor did a great job to keep the kids off balance. He had a nice curveball everyone was afraid of or something, it just wasn't sitting well. I think we only had one hit. It's hard to win a game that way," Keweenaw manager Adam Loukus said.
Gregoire pitched 3 1/3 innings and allowed two earned runs on two hits with four walks.
Janke had two of PL's four hits and is one of three PL players (Hill and Noah Bach) who will regain eligibility to pitch tonight against Marquette, which fell into the elimination bracket by being unable to protect an early 6-2 lead before Ishpeming came back to win 7-6.
Ishpeming advances to the championship game in which tonight's PL-Marquette winner will have to beat them both Saturday and Sunday for the district crown.