Del Norte starting pitcher Cole Blackburn had exactly one pitch left on his pitch count, allowing him to face Grants Pass American’s last best chance at tying up the Oregon District 8 10–12 Baseball championship game on Thursday at Pykes Field. Del Norte head coach Cris Rice was ready to ride with his ace with the game on the line.

Blackburn had another idea, however, and called for time.

With a 5-3 lead and knowing that the American hitter — representing the game-tying run due to a baserunner on first base — had hit a home run in his last a bat, Blackburn was ready to head to shortstop. The team captain felt that the Warriors’ other pitching ace and captain, Brody Mattz, was Del Norte’s best bet to finish undefeated in the double elimination tournament.

Blackburn’s faith in his co-captain was rewarded.

“He just wasn’t feeling it there, and I really appreciate him having confidence in his teammate and just giving a different arm-look,” Rice said. “Sometimes people hit multiple home runs off the same pitcher. He knew to not be selfish there and he asked for Brody to come in and finish that kid off — and (Mattz) sawed him off.”

Mattz came in and struck out the Grants Pass slugger to end the threat in the fifth inning. Then he returned to the mound to wrap up the game with three straight strikeouts in the bottom of the sixth inning, preserving Del Norte’s 5-3 lead and securing the team’s second straight 10–12 district championship.

After picking up a pair of wins in four innings by 10-run rule to reach the championship round, Grants Pass American gave Del Norte its toughest test of the district tournament.

“It was exactly how I expected the game to play out. I knew it was going to be a close game, and I was a little bit nervous,” Rice said, admitting later in the interview that it was probably the most nervous that he has been before a baseball game. “They were the best team in the tournament besides us and they have a lot of similarities to us. They have good pitching and kids that can hit the ball a long ways — (American) hit the most home runs in the whole tournament, and we didn’t hit any. The awesome part for me was that the bottom of our lineup came through clutch and produced runs, while we mowed down the bottom of their lineup and struck them out every time.”

Although Del Norte never trailed in the championship, the Warriors got off to a rocky start.

Visitors on the scoreboard, Del Norte wasn’t able to get past first base and was hitless in the bottom of the first.

Blackburn was able to strike out the first Grants Pass hitter in the bottom of the inning, but American knocked a single, drew a walk, and took advantage of a fielding error to load the bases with just one out.

Facing real adversity for the first time all tournament, Blackburn buckled down and struck out the next two batters to get out of the jam.

“Cole was amazing. He showed why he is the best pitcher in the tournament,” Rice said. “He has that inner ability to force things to happen, even when they are not going the way that he wants them to happen. He can dig deep and rely on past experiences.”

In the bottom of the second inning, the bottom of Del Norte’s batting order set the tone for the game. Billy Lewis led off the inning with a hard ground ball that the Grants Pass firstbasemen couldn’t handle and ended up safely on first. After the next batter struck out, RJ Loftin was hit by a pitch to put two runners on base but another strikeout by the Grants Pass pitcher sent the Warriors’ No. 9 hitter, Preston Daniels to the plate with two outs.

Daniels came through with a hard hit double to the centerfield fence to put Del Norte ahead 2-0.

“Preston is one of the youngest kids on the team, everybody is nervous, and he smacks that ball out there to get the scoring going,” Rice said. “I mean, how important was that? How big of a moment for him? I’m so proud of him because sometimes he struggles at the plate and he made an error in the field before that, but he came out and just busted open. I think it calmed everybody down and then our star players kind of performed.”

Leadoff hitter Giancarlo de Solenni followed up with a double of his own to bring Daniels in to score for a 3-0 lead.

Lewis gave Del Norte a little more breathing room in the top of the third inning, bringing Blackburn in to score with an RBI single for a 4-0 lead. Grants Pass finally pushed some runs across the plate with a two-run home run in the bottom of the inning to cut the Warriors’ lead in half.

Del Norte got one of those runs back in the top of the fourth inning, but American once again climbed within two runs in the bottom of the fifth inning with a leadoff walk. Blackburn got the next two batter out before a hard single into the outfield allowed a run to score.

Blackburn picked up the win for Del Norte after pitching four and two-thirds innings. Mattz picked up the save.

“I was just proud of all of them,” Rice said. “Everybody gave great effort at bat. Even if they didn’t perform how they wanted to, they were all engaged, the coaches were engaged, and everything was put on the line. That is all that we ask of them.”

With the 2018 Oregon District 8 Championship in hand, the 10–12 Del Norte All Stars will head to Salem, Oregon, on July 21 for the Oregon Little League State Tournament. It will be the third straight trip to state for many of the players, with most of them earning Del Norte Little League’s first district championship in 2016 on the 8–10 Del Norte All Star team. This year’s 10–12 team has also players from both of 2017’s 8–10 and 10–12 district championship teams.

“A lot of the boys are three-time champs,” Rice said. “We took pictures in front of all of the banners, and that was really cool because that is their legacy. They are leaving a Little League legacy right now.”

The 10–12 Del Norte All Stars have lots of experience at the state tournament, but they know the level of play will get considerably more difficult. Del Norte Little League’s baseball teams only have one win at the state tournament in those three appearances.

“We are excited to go to Salem. We know the teams up there are going to be tough, and there will be teams that are better than the team we just played,” Rice said. “We are going to have to bring a little bit more intensity, and we will have to use more pitching. We got away without using very many pitchers in districts but we will play back-to-back days up there so we will have to use some different pitching strategies. I have confidence in the team though.”

Rice said the team will spend a lot of time on its hitting and defense over the next month prior to the start of the state tournament.

“We are going to focus on seeing a variety of pitches — seeing curveballs, seeing fast pitches, and changing speeds,” he said. “Then we are also going to work a lot on our defense.”

Reach Michael Zogg at mzogg@triplicate.com .

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