CENTRAL POINT — When Larson Kindreich got the chance to shut the door, there was no doubt.
But until then, there was plenty of doubt whether Crater’s ace pitcher would get the opportunity to catapult the Comets into a second consecutive Class 5A state championship game.
The Comets trailed 4-1 going into the bottom of the sixth inning in the semifinal contest at Mel Anhorn Field Tuesday, but an improbable set of circumstances led to four unearned runs and a 5-4 Crater victory over the Bend Lava Bears.
Crater (24-6) advances to Saturday’s title contest at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer against top-seeded Crescent Valley (28-2), a 7-6 winner over last year’s state champion Churchill.
“That’s playoff baseball,” said Crater coach Jay Campbell. “You hope you’re on the right side of a one-run ballgame. With getting to the championship on the line, there’s a lot of pressure.”
And fortunately for the Comets, Bend (20-7) — riding a 13-game winning streak — couldn’t make the key plays in the sixth inning with so much at stake.
Crater opened the winning rally when leadoff hitter Ryan Kulpa hit a hard roller close to the third-base line that Reese Gordon backhanded cleanly short-hopped a throw to first base that Tysen Scott couldn’t dig out. Kindreich followed with a sharp grounder that whistled by senior second baseman Austin Jones to give the Comets back-to-back hits.
Through five innings, Bend sophomore left-handed pitcher Caden Mathisen was masterful at changing speeds and throwing his breaking ball. The Comets had collected two hits and left just one runner on base to that point.
With runners on first and second in the sixth, Mathisen struck out Comet No. 3 hitter Nick Bastendorff on four pitches.
Then Trae Frodge hit a routine grounder to shortstop Cooper Simmonds, on what appeared to be a possible inning-ending double play. But his shuttle toss to Jones at second base was dropped.
The next batter, Trever Davis was hit on the knee by a pitch to force in Kulpa and cut the Comets’ deficit to 4-2.
Blake Hollingsworth kept the momentum going with a high chopper on the right side of the infield past the mound. The junior left-fielder legged out a base hit — scoring another Comet run.
“I hit a little above the ball,” said Hollingsworth. “It wasn’t ideal but it got the job done. We knew we just had to get the ball in play.”
Garrett Dance continued the Comets’ good fortune when Jones couldn’t field a hard-hit ball right at him and the tying and winning runs crossed the plate.
“It was a fastball,” said Dance about the pitch on his decisive at bat. “I saw my opportunity and took it. I thought it might be a double play. When I saw the error was made, I was so excited.”
With the Comets holding a 5-4 lead, Kindreich used 10 pitches to strike out the side in the seventh to seal the victory.
Kindreich was only allowed to throw 25 pitches in the semifinals because of his pitch-count in a 1-0, eight-inning quarterfinal no-hitter Friday against Sandy — his fifth no hitter of the season.
“I was just trying to pound the zone,” said the 6-foot-3 left-hander, who had 12 pitches remaining for the seventh inning. “I knew I had limited pitches so I just wanted to attack the hitters.
“It’s a different mindset,” explained Kindreich about pitching in relief. “Ultimately, I want to help my team win. If it means the bullpen, that’s okay.”
Kindreich, who was brought in with one-out in the sixth, ended the game by striking out the top of Bend’s order. He fanned four of the five hitters he faced.
“It’s a tough loss,” said Bend coach Kevin Cooper. “You win five innings but that’s why you play seven.”
Cooper said Mathisen kept the Comet hitters off balance with his variety of change-ups and breaking balls.
“They finally put the ball in play and we couldn’t back (Mathisen) up,” lamented Cooper.
While the Bend coach was stunned by the Lava Bears’ defensive collapse, Campbell was joyous with the sudden turn of events.
The veteran Crater coach faced a tough decision the inning before when Steve Talamantes opened the Bend sixth with a double.
“We realized we didn’t want to bring (Kindreich) in too early,” said Campbell, because of the pitch restriction.
Campbell gambled by letting starter Jacob Memmott get the first out of the inning on a popup to shortstop Bastendorff.
“It worked out perfectly,” said Campbell. “The plan was to get the lead and turn it over to (Kindreich). We got our No 1 pitcher to get us into the championship game. You can’t be in a better position.
“Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good,” added Campbell.
The Comets proved to be both.
Mathison and Frey; Memmott, Kindreich (6) and Gilliland. W — Kindreich (8-2). L — Mathison. 2B — B: Talamantes, Reed. HR — B: Simmonds, Karpstein.