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PIL team battles back in Eugene, but Irish make 6A semifinals for 6th year in a row

EUGENE — One of the enduring debates in sports: If you have to lose, does it matter much whether you lose by a lot or by very little? Does one feel any better than the other?

The Grant Generals haven't lost by a lot all season — and haven't lost much, period.HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL GAME STORY

But, on a beautiful day for baseball in the Willamette Valley, the Generals could report Friday evening that losing by very little, particularly in a state playoff game, did not feel good.

The Generals' 11-game winning streak and season came to an end in the tightest fashion on Friday. A perennial title contender, the Sheldon Irish, edged Grant 5-4.

The Class 6A quarterfinal was a back-and-forth battle, with each team taking the lead before Sheldon scratched across a go-ahead run in the bottom of the fourth inning and made it hold up the rest of the way.

The Irish (21-7) will go into the semifinals for the sixth year in a row. They'll play Tuesday at Clackamas in what will be their first game north of Eugene this season.

Grant, which tied Lincoln for first place in the Portland Interscholastic League standings, finished 22-5.

"It hurts," said senior Jacob Velasco, who had his nose broken by a Wilson pitch on Wednesday but returned to go the distance on the mound. "I thought we had this game, thought we were going to pull it out."

Each team scored in two innings, but Sheldon had a 10-8 edge in hits and thwarted the Generals' hopes and offense with some outfield gems.

"Their defensive plays were difference-makers," Grant coach Matt Kabza said. "We hit the ball really hard."

Grant took a 1-0 lead in the first inning. Jack Fletcher led off with a single. Two batters later, Kenji Lamdin drove him home with a double.

The momentum began to turn in the top of the third, though, when Sheldon's defense seemed to temporarily sap the Generals' initial energy.

Fletcher batted first again in the third and drilled a ball near the left-field line. It looked like a single or maybe even a double, but Sheldon's Anthony Luverty got an angle to the ball and came up with a diving grab.

The next batter, Sammy Willman, hit a shot to right field. Sheldon's Nick Dorning made a sliding catch to rob him of a hit.

The Irish seemed to get a big lift from those plays. Sheldon opened its half of the fifth by going single, triple, single, single, single and walk.

But Velasco, instead of crumpling, got three straight outs (one a sacrifice fly), to avoid further damage and keep the Generals in the game.

Then Grant went back on the attack. In the fourth, the Generals rapped out five hits of their own, with Kane Brock, Reese Patanjo and Velasco all singing and scoring to tie the game at 4-4.

Sheldon regained the lead in the bottom of the fourth on a single by Dylan Hansen, a sacrifice and a one-out, RBI hit by the No. 9 batter, Tanner Zenke.

Then it was home team's defense making a difference again, and using a little luck of the Irish.

Grant's leadoff man in the fifth, Lamdin, hit a line drive to center. It looked like the start of another rally, but it turned into an out when center fielder Zenke dove on his belly to make the catch.

With two out, Grant's Eamonn Quinn hit one hard at Sheldon's first baseman. The ball caromed off Dylan Dudley, but went straight to second baseman Tanner Barrong, who was able to make the throw to Dudley and retire the side.

Grant hit three more balls to the outfield in the sixth, but its only base runner the rest of the way was Velasco, who died at first after a walk.

"This team has so much heart," Kabza said. "They really competed and came back today, and right up the last batter, I really believed they could get it done."

Grant's ace, Sawyer Medlin, was available for only 25 pitches because of the new pitch-count rules in high school baseball.

But his services weren't needed, thanks to the tenacity of Velasco.

"Incredible performance by Jacob," Kabza said. "He got better as the game went along. He found his off-speed stuff and was mixing and matching, keeping them off-balance."

Velasco got all four of his strikeouts in the final three Sheldon at-bats, but after the game he lamented that fourth inning.

"I wasn't able to lock down in that inning, so I lost the game," he said. "I could have limited them to one or two runs."

Kabza wouldn't have any of that. No way could this loss be pinned on the pitcher. Velasco gave the Generals what they needed — a competitive and solid complete game, despite the injury he suffered the game before.

"He called me last night and said, 'Coach, I'm ready to go,'" Kabza said. "He showed a tremendous amount of toughness. He's a guy who leads the team by showing his heart."

Fletcher and Nicky Markantonatos, both juniors, had two hits apiece for the Generals. Markantonatos, Velasco and Lamdin, a sophomore, each had one RBI.

Grant ran up against a playoff-tested team (ranked third by the Oregon School Activities Association) that was able to punch across one more run than the Generals, who were seeded sixth.

Sheldon, which won the state championship in 2013 and 2015, used 10 players on Friday — eight seniors and two juniors.

Its pitcher, senior Zach Diehl, the quarterback of a highly successful football team, won a baseball quarterfinal game for the second year in a row.

"Our guys are used to being in this situation," Sheldon coach Tyler Martell said.

Martell agreed that defense made the difference on Friday — and that it arrived in the nick of time, before the Generals could extend their 1-0 lead.

"Grant's a team that, if they get the momentum, they're going to run with it," Martell said. "It was a gutsy performance by our guys."

Diehl, a senior, had three strikeouts and one walk, and he set down the top of the Generals' order in order in the seventh.

Martell said the Irish flirted with the idea of going to the bullpen for the final inning, telling Diehl, 'You're going back to third base,' only to have Diehl tell him, 'No, I'm not.'"

It worked out for Diehl and the Irish, who are one win from their fourth final in the last six years.

"To be going to the semifinals a sixth straight year is pretty amazing in a single-elimination format," Martell said. "It's a real tribute to our guys."

"That's a great program," Kabza said. "I knew coming down here we were going to have our hands full … but I really thought we had a good shot at it."

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