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Pitching will be key for Pacer hardballers

by: Vern Uyetake, 
Lakeridge’s Brandon Davis receives congratulations from his teammates after hitting a third-inning home run in Monday’s TRL game against Milwaukie. Davis finished with two doubles and a homer but it wasn’t enough as Milwaukie squeaked out a 6-5 victory in eight innings.

It wasn't too many years ago that Lakeridge had the most feared pitching staff in the state. That was the biggest reason why the Pacers won state championships in 1999 and 2001. However, those titles are now becoming distant memories.

Today, the Pacers tout a pitching staff that includes only one hurler with previous varsity experience, and arm problems have robbed him of some of his velocity.

So, coach Allan Coyle was admittedly a little worried during the winter as he contemplated a season with a unproven pitching staff. In fact, just finding someone to pitch was a chore.

Coyle got some help when Grant Force, who was the team's designated hitter last year as a junior, asked the coach if he could pitch some this year.

'I said, 'absolutely. We need somebody. Go ahead,' ' Coyle urged Force.

Despite not having pitched since youth ball, Force could end up being one of the best hurlers on the team. Even though he still has a few things to learn about the fine art of pitching, Force is a bulldog of a competitor. So Coyle hasn't been afraid to use Force in crucial situations.

In fact, in the Pacers' game against Milwaukie on Monday, Force was handed the ball in the bottom of the sixth with the bases loaded and no outs, and the Pacers clinging to a one-run lead.

Unfortunately, Force was called for a questionable balk before he had a chance to throw his first pitch. That forced in the tying run but Force settled down over the next two innings before yielding an eighth-inning, game-winning single in a 6-5 loss.

That balk call denied the Pacers their first win of the season and it spoiled a solid outing by starting pitcher Sean DiPaola, who got his first start in a varsity uniform. In the end, Coyle found it hard to complain about the effort he got from a pair of inexperienced pitchers.

'They were pretty good,' the coach said after the game.

It was especially true since 'Grant hasn't been a pitcher since he was about 12. And Sean hasn't started in these big varsity games,' Coyle added.

DiPaola might have been a touch nervous in the first inning, when the Mustangs started with four consecutive hits. The first three batters he faced all singled, which drove home a run. Then, Jake Waker, the game's star, followed with a three-run homer to put Milwaukie ahead 4-1.

DiPaola could have been rattled by that start, but he certainly didn't show it. In fact, he breezed through the Mustangs' lineup for the next five-plus innings. After that shaky first inning, he faced the minimum number of batters in the second, then worked out of a two-on, one-out jam in the third. In the fourth and fifth innings, the only hitters that reached base got on board via fielding errors.

The Pacers' offense helped ease the nerves a bit for DiPaola. He was spotted a 1-0 lead in the top of the first when Brandon Davis opened with a double, then Brady Burdick followed with a single and Davis scored on another single by Force.

After falling behind 4-1, the Pacers got the lead back in the third when they plated four runs. The frame started with a solo home run by Davis, who doubled, homered and doubled in his first three at-bats. Then, after back-to-back singles by Force and Jake Gregory, Spencer Trefzger put Lakeridge in front when he roped a two-run double to deep center field.

After sailing through the middle innings, DiPaola ran into trouble in the sixth when he yielded two singles and a walk without recording an out. Coyle then brought in Force, who had opened the game at third base.

Before he could throw a pitch, Force was called for a balk even though he appeared to ask for time out before the call was made. The home plate umpire said he didn't have to grant the time-out request, but Force had already stepped off of the mound by then.

'That was pretty bad,' Coyle said of the balk call. 'But they made calls like that all night all over the field ... neither one of (the umpires) saw if he balked or not … It was bizarre.'

Meantime, the Pacers had trouble tacking on more runs after Waker took over for Milwaukie starting pitcher Alex Brink in the fifth. Waker, with the help of an enlarged strike zone, fanned the first seven batters he faced.

The only threat Waker encountered came in the top of the eight when Dylan Summers singled, Brian Luevano walked and Davis was intentionally walked. That loaded the bases with two outs, but Waker got one more strikeout to end the Pacers' threat.

The Pacers certainly can't fault their defensive play for the loss. For a while, it seemed the Pacers would play flawless defense as they made every difficult play that was presented. Then, Burdick, a slick-fielding shortstop, wound up committing errors on a couple of difficult plays, including one where he had to range to the left side of second base to track down a hard grounder.

'It's probably obvious that we've worked hard at our defense,' Coyle said after the game. 'We've gotten a lot better.'

Solid defense and strong pitching will win games at any level. The defense seems to be there, but the question is whether the Pacers will have enough pitching to carry them through the season.

Davis was expected to be the team's ace but an arm injury suffered last year has limited his effectiveness and has taken some of the zip off his fastball.

'We'll see how Davis does against West Linn on Thursday,' Coyle said. 'He can't throw hard any more, so he's really had to change his whole approach to pitching.

'In his last outing, he actually threw really well without trying to blow it by everybody,' the coach continued. 'He's still a real tough competitor, and I think he'll be all right.'

In addition to Force, DiPaola and Davis, the Pacers also will depend on Joe Jacobson and Erik Hillier to work some innings on the mound. Both appear eager but neither has varsity experience on the hill. So, Coyle will probably go with whoever is the hottest.

'We'll just have to do (the pitching) by committee,' the coach said. 'A lot of these guys aren't used to going very deep in games.'

That committee approach could be key in helping the Pacers rebound from their slow start, which included a shocking 30-9 loss to Putnam two weeks ago.

'We got off to a slow start and those eight games in the first two weeks really put us in a hole fast,' Coyle said.

'But I think we'll be all right the rest of the way just by not having to play back-to-back-to-back-to-back games with virtually no pitching … And the teams we played early were all top-15 teams … It was probably the roughest preseason schedule out there.'