Two of the three victories by the La Grande Tigers baseball team in the lead-up to the Class 4A state championship game had come with the Tigers scoring the winning run in the late innings.
The Gladstone Gladiators returned the favor Saturday to prevent La Grande from repeating as state
Gladstone’s Matthew Lehrbach hit the go-ahead RBI single with two outs in the top of the seventh inning, then pitcher Ben McCoy shut down the Tigers’ offense in the bottom of the seventh to lift the Gladiators to a 3-2 win over La Grande in the state title game Saturday at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer.
“It didn’t feel any different. It was the same thing with North Marion and Estacada,” senior infielder Isaac Chamberlain said, referencing the Tigers’ two 1-0 wins from earlier in the playoffs. “Good ball clubs playing good games. They were on their game today — they just had a couple more hits. They weren’t going to stop (and) we never gave up. We were fighting until the very last pitch.”
La Grande had just scored the tying run in the bottom of the sixth inning and was looking to keep the momentum on its side in the back-and-forth game. But Gladstone came up with the key plays it needed in the decisive inning.
Tyler Meyers walked with one out in the seventh against La Grande relief pitcher Parker Robinson, and Damian Alvarado reached on a fielder’s choice and moved to second on an error on the play. Lehrbach followed by hitting the first pitch he saw into right field to score Alvarado for the lead.
The Tigers had one final chance in the seventh, but McCoy retired La Grande in order to secure the victory and the Gladiators’ first baseball title.
Despite the outcome, there was a lot of pride in what the Tigers accomplished during the season.
“I’m just really proud of the guys,” sophomore catcher Logan Paustian said. “It was a tough game. It came down to hitting, and they outhit us. That was it. Both pitchers worked their (butts) off. I’m super proud of everyone.”
The loss, however, also left the Tigers lamenting several missed chances and commenting that they didn’t execute at the plate the way they had throughout the season.
“We had opportunities to score guys and we had opportunities to move runners, (but) we couldn’t quite get it done,” head coach Parker McKinley said. “They hit and we didn’t. It’s hard to win when that’s the way it goes. We hit some balls hard that they made a couple phenomenal plays on.”
The Tigers had only three hits on the afternoon, popped up two bunts that failed to advance a runner and saw a player picked off at first base.
Yet La Grande trailed just 2-1 entering the sixth inning, and the Tigers strung together a one-out rally to pull even — and nearly ahead — using the small-ball game that had been so effective all season.
Paustian walked with one out against Gladstone starting pitcher Derek Lee. Logan Atkinson, who earlier drove in the Tigers’ first run with a first-inning sacrifice fly, dropped down a bunt and reached on an error. Brody Kincade followed with a bunt of his own against relief pitcher Wes Haverland, who threw the ball away to allow Paustian to score the tying run. McCoy took over on the mound to get Gladstone out of the inning, though it took a key play by first baseman Jackson Simmons, who somehow snared a hard-hit grounder by JayCe Leonard and got the out at first, to prevent at least one run from scoring.
It was the second highlight-reel play by the Gladiators in as many innings. In the fifth, with Leonard on first base with two outs, Chamberlain hit a rocket to left center field that would have likely scored Leonard for the tying run, but Alvarado laid out to make a stunning catch and keep his team ahead.
“Their center fielder makes a great catch that probably scores a run, their first baseman makes a fantastic diving play that probably scores two runs. It wasn’t our day for balls to find holes,” McKinley said.
Both teams scored in the first inning. Gladstone took a 1-0 lead on an RBI groundout by Lee, and Atkinson’s sacrifice fly scored Chamberlain in the home half of the frame.
Gladstone retook the lead, 2-1, on an Austin Conner RBI single in the third, but La Grande starting pitcher Cody Dubray settled in after that frame to keep the Tigers in the contest, giving up just two hits and striking out five batters over the final three innings he pitched.
The senior finished with six innings pitched, allowing two runs on six hits with a walk and eight strikeouts.
“I was a little shaky (early) — didn’t have my curveball in command,” he said. “As I worked into the game (I) got going, got my curveball command (and) my fastball command (and) was throwing well. We just had a couple misplayed balls in the field (and) didn’t hit the ball today.”
Lee was nearly as solid for Gladstone, allowing two runs on two hits in 5-2/3 innings with three walks and three strikeouts.
“Derek threw great,” Paustian said. “He located really well. He was smart with his pitching sequences. His defense was great behind him. They made good plays in big-time (situations). There were some clutch times that (our) guys hit balls hard and they made diving plays on. The ball just went their way today.”
While the loss ends the Tigers’ season one win shy of the repeat and with a 21-4 overall record, Chamberlain said it was still “incredible” to be part of a team that won state in 2017 and took second again in 2018.
“Not many teams get to go back-to-back, to have the opportunity to win two state championships. We came out with one,” he said. “(We) didn’t quite get there today, (but) just to be back on this field is amazing.”