Specialization pays off

ISHPEMING – Intense preparation for a defensive play they might not ever use doesn’t sound like a useful strategy for the Portage Lake Little League Junior All-Stars.

But manager Jim Cortright and coaches Dave Hokenson, Dan Wood and John Bostwick know what they’re doing.

The visitors from the Copper Country pulled off an unusual double play, then parlayed it into a crucial four-run rally their next time up at the plate to breeze past Marquette 10-3 in a District 11 tournament game held at the Ishpeming Playgrounds on Sunday afternoon.

The win sends PL into the championship round on Tuesday, where it will meet the winner of today’s 5 p.m. elimination game between Marquette and Ishpeming.

The unusual double play? Try both runners getting thrown out on an delayed double steal attempt.

It came at a crucial point in the game – Marquette led 1-0 in the third inning and had runners on first and third with nobody out.

“We spent a lot of time just this week alone working on the ‘squeeze,'” Cortright said as a reference to the two-runner steal.

He explained that the play begins with his hand signal to catcher Kevin Bostwick.

“I gave him the one for ‘Get the out however you can get it,'” Cortright said. “Then Kevin called for a pitchout on his own; he’s been doing that all season.”

Bostwick made a quick, accurate throw to second baseman Justin Norkol, who tagged out Marquette runner Kevin McCarthy sliding into second.

Norkol didn’t wait around for a safe-out call or the dust to settle at the base. Instead, he immediately wheeled back a throw to Bostwick, who easily cut down Marquette’s other runner, Hunter Doucette, at the plate.

“That really got our kids pumped up, and it must deflate the other team when a rally like that gets snuffed out,” Cortright said. “That’s why we spend so much time on it. Most teams don’t think you’re going to make the second throw.”

In their turn at bat in the bottom of the third, Portage Lake pieced together four hits, three errors, a wild pitch, several stolen bases and a sacrifice fly to score four times and take a 4-1 lead.

And that came despite Marquette pitcher Joe Phillips picking off PL leadoff man Clayton Sayen when he strayed too far from third base.

“We beat ourselves,” Marquette manager Kevin McCarthy said. “We had some baserunning errors and we dropped the ball in the outfield after we were catching it (on Saturday). Those errors put them up 8-1 or 9-1.

“But we’ve got our No. 1 and 2 pitchers available (today) – Hunter Doucette and Jordan Kivi.”

Sunday’s game started with a series of missed opportunities. Or call it wriggling out of jams by starting pitchers Phillips and Carson Turner of PL.

“It was a matter of who would get the key hit first,” Cortright said.

Eight runners were stranded in just the first two innings with only one run scored.

Marquette jammed the bases full with one out in the first inning on two walks and a single by Doucette, but Turner got back-to-back flyouts to end that threat.

Though Marquette scored in the top of the second on Kennan Johnson’s single and sacrifice fly by Kivi, they again left runners stranded on second and third following a pair of infield errors.

On the PL side, Phillips got the Houghton- and Hancock-based team out 1-2-3 in the first, but walked the bases loaded in the second inning before getting a strikeout to end the threat.

Then came the top of the third with the dual caught-stealing play. Three Marquette runners reached base that inning with none making it home safely.

PL upped its 4-1 advantage with five more runs in the fifth on five hits, including Grant Hokenson’s second straight double, and a suicide squeeze that went awry when the throw to first base sailed wild and brought two runs in.

Marquette scored its final two runs in the sixth after a hit by McCarthy and two walks loaded the bases. A double by Phillips got in one run after another unusual play had scored Andrew Pieper.

With the bases loaded, Marquette’s Holden Shaneberger hit a bloop to rightfielder Jaden Janke, who had just finished a stint pitching.

A running Janke committed what looked like an error when he dropped the ball, but he alertly fired it to shortstop Nordstrom at second base for the forceout after Marquette’s Alec Beauchamp was caught in no man’s land waiting to see if there would be a catch.

Pieper scored on the play, but the error was erased when it was determined that the run would’ve scored as a sacrifice fly if Janke had made his running catch.

Turner got the pitching victory, going 4 2/3 innings as he neared his 95-pitch limit, allowing an unearned run on three hits, three walks and chalking up three strikeouts.

Phillips, the first of four Marquette pitchers, was tagged with the loss after allowing four runs, just one earned, on four hits and four walks as he fanned four.

Hokenson was one of three batters with two hits. The others were Nordstrom and McCarthy.

PL returns to Ishpeming at 5 p.m. Tuesday, with the “if necessary” game to be played immediately after if the Marquette County survivor wins.

Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246.