Late-game execution lifts Portland to 5-4 win and series victory over the Chico Heat at Walker Stadium

Did you hear the one about the Portland Pickles and the ninth inning?

It's no joke.

The Pickles walked into another ninth inning on Sunday night, and walked off with a 5-4 win over the Chico Heat before 1,977 fans at Walker Stadium.PICKLES WIN

The Pickles are making late-game and ninth-inning rallies a habit, and this one enabled them to take the Chico series 2-1, just as they had beaten the Marysville Gold Sox two out of three at home earlier in the week.

"Coach 'Mags' says it's all about winning one series at a time," Portland outfielder Joey Cooper said, referring to assistant coach Mark Magdaleno.

With the teams tied at 4-4, Griffin Mueller led off the bottom of the ninth with a walk. Then Bobby Kinne bunted and beat out the throw, putting runners on first and second. After a strikeout, the Heat intentionally walked Matt Starcovic, who would play a key role a few moments later.

Cooper, who has been wielding a good bat for the Pickles, came to the plate with the bases loaded. He swung and missed on a 2-0 pitch, then hit a ground ball to shortstop.

It looked like a possible double play that would force extra innings — but the roller was on the slow side, and Starcovic's determined slide into second affected the turn by Chico second baseman Kade Cloward.

Cooper, no slouch at getting down to first base, was at or near the bag when the throw from second bounced in front of Chico first baseman Bailey Zimmer and rolled to fence.

By then, Mueller was zipping across home plate, the Portland fans were starting to dance in the aisles, and the Pickles bench was emptying for another mass celebration on the field, as Chico walked off in defeat.

"Our team has a lot of tenacity and fight in them. The guys are going to compete hard every night," said Cooper, who was 2 for 5 with two RBIs. "And we got guys on base to start the ninth. That was key."

Mueller, who went 3 for 3 with a home run and two RBIs, said he "couldn't be more excited to be a Pickle" and to provide the winning run, which capped a 4-2 opening homestand for the Great West League college wood-bat team.

Portland manager Jeff Lahti, a former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher, said the Pickles are reminding him of the 1985 World Series champion Cards.

"August and September, we had one walk-off win after another," Lahti said. "Tie score in the ninth, Cardinals win. Tie score in the ninth, Pickles win. What's the difference?"

Lahti gave another reason for the Pickles' solid play of late.

"We've got some very talented players," he said. "And a good mix of guys, of lefties and righties. So we can match up with teams."

One thing he didn't like: Chico stole eight bases to go with its eight hits and four walks.

"We need to get better at holding runners on base," he said. "We've got to slow down the running game and not give up free 90s.

"But right now, I think that's our only weakness."

Offensively, the Pickles have had just about everyone contribute in one game or another. It's like they're taking turns.

Mueller stepped up most significantly on Sunday, belting a two-run home run in the sixth inning to give the Pickles a 4-2 lead.

"I was seeing the ball really well today," said the 6-0, 195-pound Mueller, a native of Newcastle, Washington, who was moved from catcher to the outfield when he got to Big Sky Northern Colorado.

Cooper, who will play next year at Cal State Northridge after two years at Palomar College, has been manning center field for the Pickles while batting anywhere from the leadoff spot to the bottom of the order. He hit third on Sunday and had a triple.

When he stepped to the plate in the ninth, Cooper was thinking either fly ball or something up the middle.

"I like to think I can put a ball in play and not get doubled up," he said.

The game was scoreless until the bottom of the third.

The Pickles didn't have a hit until then, either, but Mueller walked, went to second on a sacrifice by former Benson High player Kelechi Anyanwu, advanced to third on a single by Cameron Mosier and then scored on a hit by Cooper.

After Chico came back with a run in the top of the fourth, the Pickles took a 2-1 lead on Renner Stecki's RBI single in the bottom half of that inning.

Chico made it a 2-2 game in the fifth.

And the Heat got two runs in the seventh, evening the score right after Mueller's homer.

Pickles starter Josh Hendrickson, from Perth, Australia, went 5 2/3 innings. The 6-5 left-hander allowed six hits and two runs, with three walks and nine strikeouts.

Matt Tomazin, from Orange Coast College in California, relieved with runners on second and third, and got the final out of the sixth on a pop-up to the shortstop.

A bloop hit in the top of the seventh cut the Pickles' lead to 4-3, and the Heat then used a double steal to get runners to second and third. A ground out to short scored the typing run, before an inning-ending strikeout.

Tomazin, who plays for Orange Coast College in Southern California, retired the last eight batters he faced, though, to get the win and improve to 3-0 in four appearances out of the Pickles bullpen.

"Didn't have my best stuff today," he said, "but I fought through it."

As did the rest of the team.

Now it's on to Medford. The bus leaves Tuesday morning for a three-game series with the Rogues and then three games at Marysville.

Portland will be back at Walker Stadium on Monday, June 19, to open a series with the expansion Yuba City Bears.

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