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Appreciative Portland players say they feed off 'electric' fans at Walker Stadium/First homestand of Great West League season had late-game rallies, heroics

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland Pickles manager Jeff Lahti helped guide the summer college wood-bat team to two series victories last week at Walker Stadium.Summer baseball for collegians, whether they play for the Portland Pickles or elsewhere, is all about getting better and getting noticed.

The Pickles' best player last summer probably turned out to be an unheralded, pint-sized shortstop, Sahid Valenzuela, from Yuma, Arizona. He sparkled with the glove and bat — and suddenly got himself on a lot of scouts' radar.

All he's done since his Pickles stint is get the everyday job at second base for Cal State Fullerton, which has a highly respected NCAA program. And he hit .343 for the Titans — who will open the College World Series against No. 1 Oregon State.

Down the road, Valenzuela is almost certain to be playing pro ball — and quite likely wind up in the major leagues.

Is there a Valenzuela on this year's Pickles roster? Who knows?

But, as was the case last year, the players wearing Portland uniforms also are demonstrating a high level of togetherness and team identity to go with their desire for individual success.

"They really care about the team and playing to win," says Alan Miller, a Los Angeles entrepreneur and baseball fan who became a Pickles owners this year along with Seattle Seahawks punter Jon Ryan.

The Pickles completed their first homestand on Sunday, using some late heroics — which has become a familar theme — to beat the Chico Heat 5-4. While the Pickles' 6-6 record has them in the middle part of the six-team Great West League, they have played entertaining baseball and mustered rallies that kept the home fans at Walker Stadium on the edge of their seats.

"It's amazing," says reliever Matt Tomazin, who is 3-0. "For some reason, we come alive in the ninth inning."

Manager Jeff Lahti, a reliever for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1980s, says in that way the Pickles remind him a little of the '85 World Series champion Cards.

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

The fans have helped keep the team fired up, too.

"The fans are electric," says outfielder Griffin Mueller, from the Northern Colorado Bears. "We love the support."

Among the fan favorites is outfielder Joey Cooper, who played for Portland last summer. Pickles fans chant "Coop" every time he steps to the plate, which he appreciates.

"We're just kids out here nobody really knows," he says.

The Pickles begin their second road trip, another six-gamer, on Tuesday at the Medford Rogues. Portland will play three games there and three at Chico (Friday through Sunday), then hustle back home for a six-game homestand.

The next game at Walker Stadium will be on Monday, June 19, against the expansion Yuba City Bears. That series continues June 20-21, and then the Pickles will meet the first-year Lincoln Potters for three games June 23-25, also at Walker.

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