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Big plays abound as LO legion heads to state

When Bennett Frazier had to undergo emergency surgery last Friday for a perforated ulcer, it seemed that the fortunes of the Lake Oswego American Legion baseball team would wind up in the recovery room with Frazier.

After all, he was the team's No. 2 pitcher and one of the top hitters. So, the timing couldn't have been much worse as the Lakers were battling their way through the metro area playoffs and hoping to secure a berth in the state tournament.

Losing Frazier was certainly a huge blow. But the Lakers have been a resilient bunch this summer and they managed to plug the holes rather nicely on Saturday as they pulled out a thrilling 4-3 victory over McMinnville. That win qualified Lake Oswego for the eight-team state tournament, which started Wednesday in Eugene.

The Lakers had so many stand-out performances on Saturday that it would be hard to mention all of them. However, it would be impossible to ignore the game turned in by Steve Smith, who is normally the team's catcher but he looked like an all-star pitcher against McMinnville.

Smith had pitched no more than three innings at a time while being used as occasional reliever during the summer. But with the team short on pitching, the Lakers needed a lot more than three innings from Smith on Saturday, and he delivered big time.

The lanky right-hander went 8 1/3 innings and pitched his way out of four jams in an effort to keep Lake Oswego ahead on the scoreboard.

'The big story is Steve Smith. He just did an awesome, phenomenal job,' Lake Oswego coach Jake Anders said after the game. 'He struggled out of the gate, walking a couple of guys. Then he just beared down.'

It looked as though Smith would throw a nine-inning complete game after he entered the ninth with a comfortable 4-1 lead. Then, after recording a flyout to start the inning, he issued three consecutive walks followed by a two-run single, which closed the margin to 4-3.

That signaled the end for Smith, yet he lobbied to stay in the game when Anders came out to make a change.

'I think he threw 135 pitches or something like that,' Anders said. 'Normally, I'd hate to do that to any kid, but he wanted the ball. He wanted it when I went out there and took him out.'

Enter Cooper Mandelblatt, who normally plays third base and shortstop. He was being called on to fill the nerve-wracking closer's role on the mound.

First, with one out and first base open, Mandelblatt was ordered to issue an intentional walk, which would set up a force at any base. But Mandelblatt never got the groundball he supposedly needed. Instead, the next batter lofted a flyball to center fielder Alex Freeman.

The ball was hit deep enough that it seemed almost certain McMinnville would tie the game on a sacrifice fly. But the runner on third waited an unusually long time to tag up and got a late start for home. Freeman then fired a bullet to the middle of the infield where first baseman Mike Wesner was waiting. Wesner then made a perfect relay throw to catcher Jeff Kremer, who tagged the runner out to complete the double play.

'Alex just made a frickin' unbelievable throw from center field and then Mike made a great throw to get the guy out,' Anders said as he recalled the key moment of the game.

It was an incredible way to end the game, especially when a trip to state was riding on the outcome.

'It didn't cost (McMinnville) the game, but it ended the game,' Anders said of the base-running mistake that decided the outcome.

That game-ending play wasn't the only stellar defensive effort that Lake Oswego came up with during the game. In the top of the eighth, second baseman Moto Asai made a potential run-saving play when he made a diving stop on a grounder deep behind the bag.

Keeping the ball in the infield denied a chance for a McMinnville runner to score from second. Then, as that runner rounded third, Asai threw behind him and Mandelblatt (who was still at third) made the tag for the final out of the inning. That perserved a 2-1 lead for the Lakers.

'You just can't execute any better than that,' Anders said of Asai's big play.

With Smith pitching the game of his life, Lake Oswego didn't need its usual offensive fireworks display to win the game. Instead, the Lakers just chipped away against a strong McMinnville pitcher, Jeff Sublet.

Lake Oswego's biggest hit of the game came just two batters into the bottom of the first inning when Freeman blasted a solo home run. It stayed 1-0 until the bottom of the third when a sacrifice fly by Mandelblatt scored Matt Stutes to make it 2-0.

Then the game turned into a pitcher's duel until McMinnville scored its first run in the top of the eighth. Lake Oswego could have gotten out of that inning unscathed, but a sinking line drive to left, that Stutes appeared to temporarily lose in the lights, kept the inning going. Asai then put an end to the threat with his great diving stop.

'When you get to this point in the playoffs, it's the little things that are going to make the difference,' Anders noted.

As things turned out, the Lakers might have been in trouble if they had settled for a 2-1 lead heading into the ninth. Instead, Lake Oswego came up with its best inning of the night in the eighth.

The frame started off with a double by Smith but he was erased when he tried to take third on a routine grounder to short. That put Wesner on first with a fielder's choice. Then, Duncan White ripped a double to put runners on second and third. After a second out was recorded, Jared Van Hoon followed with another double to score Wesner and White, which gave Lake Oswego a 4-1 lead.

'That was the difference in the game,' Anders said of Van Hoon's hit.

'Jared Van Hoon has been struggling for probably two or three weeks,' Anders said. 'He hasn't been able to catch a break. Then he comes up in the biggest situation of the summer so far and comes up with two runs. He's the perfect kid to have up in that situation. He's a gamer.'

That set up the incredible ninth inning, which could have turned ugly for the Lakers. Instead, it turned into a joyous celebration. Everybody, including the fans, were on the edge of the seats until the end.

'I was nervous through the whole game,' Anders admitted.

In a way, it was fortunate the game ended when it did because the Lakers were running short on pitching after losing Frazier and having to pitch virtually everyone else in a 19-14 slugfest against Southridge two days before.

'If we had lost (to McMinnville), we might have been in trouble, because we don't have the depth pitching wise,' Anders said. 'We wanted to close it out tonight and not put ourselves in that situation.'

The Lakers advanced to the McMinnville game by sweeping Southridge in a best-of-three series earlier in the week.

The first game in that series marked Frazier's last pitching start of the season. He threw six innings in that outing and looked good for the first four - a stretch that included six strikeouts and only one run allowed.

The fifth was a bit rocky, though. In that inning, Southridge got to Frazier for a pair of doubles, two singles, a walk and an infield error. That allowed Southridge to score four times and close Lake Oswego's lead to 7-5.

Then, after a 1-2-3 sixth, Frazier gave way to reliever Craig Mooney, who was making his first appearance in 12 days. Mooney did give up an unearned run in the seventh, which cut Lake Oswego's lead to 7-6, but he cruised through the final two innings.

'Crain Mooney did an outstanding job to come in and close the game,' Anders said. 'He had been waiting more than a week to pitch … But he was ready and he did exactly what he was supposed to do. You can't ask any more from him than that.'

Just like the McMinnville game, the last two innings of the first Southridge game included a couple of defensive gems. The eighth ended when Asai made an unassisted force at second and threw to Frazier (who was now at first) to complete a double play. The ninth, and the game, ended when Frazier scooped a throw out of the dirt at first.

Frazier also played a key role at the plate. He had an RBI single that gave Lake Oswego a 2-0 lead in the first and he added a two-run homer, which made it 4-1, in the third. Mandelblatt also had a big game. He had an RBI double that plated the game's first run and then he doubled home a pair of runs in the fourth.

That victory set up last Thursday's slugfest, a game in which each team logged at least 20 hits. Stutes led the way with a 3-for-6 effort at the plate. His day included a home run, two doubles and two runs scored. Frazier, playing in his last game of the season, also had three hits. Freeman, Mandelblatt, Smith, Wesner and Asai all had two hits. Stutes, Freeman, Smith, Wesner, White and Asai each scored twice while Mandelblatt found the plate three times.

Counting the league tournament and the metro playoffs, Lake Oswego had a 6-0 post-season record heading into the state tournament. But it will be a difficult task to keep that perfect mark in tact since five of the teams at the state tournament will be all-star or combo squads.

'We know what we're facing down there,' Anders said. 'It's going to be a tough road, especially not having Bennett. But we want to go down there and have a good showing. We want to show those people that we deserve to be down there.'