SOUTH RANGE – The first day of the District 11 Major (age 11-12) division Little League tournament was full of big: Big players, big hits and big plays.
Both Houghton Country entries advanced in the winner's bracket by winning their openers: Keweenaw controlling the curtain-raiser for a 9-1 win over Baraga County and Portage Lake eking out a close one with Penokee Range (Gogebic County), 4-3.
"They started off with a little bit of jitters, made a few mistakes, and threw the ball around a little bit, but they kept their heads in it. A lot of times kids can get a little crestfallen and lose focus but they sharpened up, got rid of the jitters, came back, played solid defense, pitched well and hit the ball a little bit," PL manager Aaron Janke said.
Two big players had a big impact on the Portage Lake-Penokee game:
Penokee starting pitcher Tyler Busch and Portage Lake shortstop Colton Salani.
Penokee took an early lead when Drew Dobb rounded the bases thanks to two Portage errors. Busch lasered a double to the wall two batters later, reached third on an error and scored on a passed ball.
Busch struck out four, including Salani, in his first trip through the Portage Lake order.
When Salani came up again in the third inning, he dropped the bat head on a low 1-1 pitch from Busch and it carried against a crosswind over the fence, tying the game.
"He's got a big bat, and if he gets a hold of one with his strength and the speed that kid was pitching, too. He's throwing hard, Colton's swinging hard, if he gets a hold of it, it's going to go somewhere and it did," Janke said.
When the top of the order came up again in the fifth, Portage got its breakthrough. Noah Bach delivered a one-out double, took third on a passed ball and scored easily when Salani singled. Salani scored later in the inning on an RBI groundout by Taylor Gardner.
Penokee made a late bid sparked by Busch's one-out walk and eventual run, but stranded the tying run on base when another big guy from Portage, first baseman P.J. Donnelly, had enough range to snag Ethan Libertoski's grounder and beat him to the bag by a step.
"We played pretty good defense, battled at the plate. It was a pitcher's duel," Penokee manager Tim Routheaux said. "We just need to get a little more aggressive, work on our hitting a little bit more. They're a good team, going to be one of the teams to beat probably."
Busch's double was scored as Penokee's only hit, but the visitors had baserunners all day: Portage committed six errors and walked four.
Ashton Janke gave Portage Lake 3 2/3 strong innings (one hit, two walks, nine strikeouts) before yielding to the bullpen. Gardner earned the win and showed excellent control in 1 2/3 innings of relief, coming within a pitch of striking out the side on 10 pitches in the fifth. Davin Hill induced the game-clinching grounder to get the save.
Portage Lake advances in the winner's bracket to face Ishpeming, which survived a bases-loaded no-out situation in the sixth to defeat Negaunee 5-4, today at 4.
For Penokee, Busch had one earned run on three hits in 2 2/3 innings and struck out five. Dobb took the loss in relief. Penokee plays Negaunee in the tournament's first elimination game today at 6 p.m.