Gladstone downs Estacada 8-1, closes in on Tri-Valley baseball title
Gladstone's Derek Lee grabbed the spotlight Friday night -- on the mound and at the plate.
The senior left-hander tossed a complete-game, five-hitter with eight strikeouts and went 3 for 4 with three doubles and one RBI, leading the Gladiators to an 8-1 Tri-Valley Conference home win over Estacada.
Matthew Kuhn went 1 for 3 and drove in three runs as Gladiators (14-5, 10-0 Tri-Valley) won their 13th in a row and moved a step closer to clinching their first outright league title since 2015.
"Oh, we're playing great," Lee said. "We've come prepared to play every day, we've put ourselves in a great position, and we've just got to stay focused and hopefully everything will work out."
With five games left in the regular season, Gladstone has a three-game lead over Madras, and a five-game cushion over Crook County and Estacada.
"I like where we're at, but we're taking one game at a time," Gladiators coach Casey Webster said. "I was telling the guys, 'You have to be ready to play every time you step on the field, regardless of who you're playing.' I think they got the message.
"We'll just keep after them and keep doing what we're doing. I like what we're doing at the plate, we're getting good pitching, and our defense has been pretty good, so I like the way things are going."
Gladstone jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning against Estacada starter Jeremiah May when Matthew Lehrbach lined a one-out double to left, Lee followed with an RBI-double to center, and Kuhn added an RBI-single to left.
The Rangers scored an unearned run in the second when Mateo Burgos walked with two outs, stole second, stole third, and scored when Gladstone catcher Otis Lundgren's throw to third glanced off Ben McCoy's glove and the ball bounced out of play.
At that point, Lee kicked he pitches up a notch.
He struck out Brandon Thornhill to end the second inning, then retired the Rangers in order in the third and fourth, striking out three of the six batters he faced over that stretch.
"I felt great," said Lee, who had pitched six innings in Monday's 7-4 road win over Crook County in Prineville. "I had good command of my fastball and I had a little more life on my four-seam fastball, so I was able to throw that for a strike. And then my breaking ball was working pretty well all day, too."
Estacada threatened to score in the sixth after Nick Keller and Wyatt Riedel hit back-to-back singles to put runners at first and second with one out.
Instead of scoring, the Rangers (9-8, 5-5) went quietly as Jared Weaver grounded sharply to McCoy for an easy force out at third base, and then Nathan Hagel grounded into a 6-4 fielder's choice to end the inning.
Lee then retired the Rangers in order in the seventh, getting May on a grounder to first baseman Jackson Simmons for the game's final out.
"You've got to hit the ball," said Estacada coach Andrew Higgins, whose team also dropped a 1-0 decision to Gladstone on Wednesday. "That's the second game in a row where we've come out and just haven't figured it out all the way through our lineup.
"Don't get me wrong, Derek threw a great game for Gladstone. He threw a lot of strikes and pumped the zone. But from my point of view, he struggled a little bit with his off-speed pitches, and I think our approach at the plate was terrible, plain and simple."
What would Higgins have liked to see his Rangers do differently?
"When somebody throws that many first-pitch fastballs, you should be getting up there looking for something you can handle and drive it to the right side or pull it if you need to," Higgins said. "I just don't think we did enough of that.
"Some of it is just making sure we know what's going on and how to be aggressive in that situation."
The Rangers may have started pressing a bit after the third inning when Gladstone's Damian Alvarado scored on Austin Conner's single, and then Lehrbach scored on Kuhn's sacrifice fly to make it 4-1.
The Gladiators then piled on in the fifth, turning one hit batter, a double by Lee, a walk, a fielder's choice, two more hit batters, and one Estacada error into four more runs to break the game open.
"That's a good, all-around team right there," Higgins said of Gladstone. "Hats off to them. They did a great job the last couple games, and we laid an egg on Wednesday and then laid another here today."