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Clark embraces his shutdown role

The bottom of the eighth inning has rolled around, and it’s finally time for Michael Clark to start getting busy.

Reliever Jeramy Smith is out on the mound trying to hold a two-run lead, and Clark knows that if Smith can take the Gresham GreyWolves into the ninth with the lead intact, he will be getting the ball to save yet another important game for Gresham.

The life of a closer at any level of baseball features a lot of sitting around and waiting for something to happen, but things move quickly now. Clark goes through his stretches, plays a game of catch, and starts to prepare by throwing hard in the bullpen down the left field line at Bend’s Vince Genna Stadium.

This night is a bit different as Clark has been feeling under the weather for a third straight day, but he’s ready to give it a go.

“Sandy (pitching coach Ian Sanderson) just asked me if I was good enough to go close it,” Clark said after the game. “I said sure and went out there feeling a little weak, but I just allowed them to put the ball in play and let my good defense do the work behind me.”

The plan worked, as Clark picked up his fifth save in the month of July in a 3-1 victory over the Bend Elks. That stat is still a bit surprising to the Cal Poly product, who didn’t inherit the closer role until the second week of July.

“Everyone knew I was coming (to Gresham) late because my school is on the quarter system,” Clark said. “The first day I was here, Sanderson actually thought I was a position player so he didn’t even talk to me. I didn’t even close in the first half, but in the second half I had a save here and there and then eventually I just molded nicely into that role.”

The GreyWolves’ fortunes have certainly changed ever since Sanderson and head coach Justin Barchus identified Clark as their go-to closer, with the team hovering around the top of the divisional standings throughout the second half of the season.

With a two-seam fastball, changeup, and a wicked slider inside his arsenal, the sophomore-to-be has kept West Coast League opponents at bay. His efforts — combined with a marked improvement from Gresham’s offense — has the team tied for second place in the South Division standings with just one series remaining.

“The biggest thing I like in a closer is having confidence that when they go out there, we’re going to win the baseball game,” says Barchus. “He didn’t get to pitch a lot at Cal Poly this year but I think we’re all seeing his potential now. Once he harnessed that potential and pointed it in one direction, he’s been really good for us.”

While Clark’s work on the mound has been impressive, his ability to keep things light inside the dugout and bullpen has proved helpful to the club as well. Typically, Clark and the rest of the pitching staff (especially Linfield left-hander Carter Buuck) are at the forefront of the in-game banter and bus ride joke telling.

“Him (Buuck) and I kind of feed off each other whenever we’re sitting together down in the bullpen,” Clark says. “I would say the whole team is pretty funny though. Everyone has had their own inside jokes that they bring here from their school.”

First baseman Drew Curtis agrees, adding that the team is at their best when the energy is high and everyone is talking.

“We get loud when the other team gets loud, but when they get down we tend to get down as well,” says Curtis. “It’s not exactly a great thing, but our dugout can easily come alive and it just multiplies. When guys like Spud (Heideman), Clark, Buuck, and the rest of those fools start chirping, it gets you up and makes you want to do well.”

Clark has six saves with a 3.80 ERA.