BY JAKE OSWALT
ST. MICHAEL —
When it comes to playoff baseball, pitching and defense are a tough combination to beat.
The Portage Legion team had both areas covered on its way to a 7-1 first-round victory over Central Division champion St. Michael.
Portage right-hander Jake Bryja went the distance, allowing only four hits, walking one and striking out seven.
“Hats off to Jake Bryja. He threw a heck of a game,” Portage manager Dan Kerch said. “We know we’re going to be in every game he throws. I can’t say enough about him. He’s a leader. I’m glad he’s on our side. When we play good defense and we get good starting pitching, we usually do well.
“Everything was clicking for us as a team out there today, our defense was phenomenal,” Bryja said. “We came up with big clutch hits when we needed them, played with a ton of energy. I was really able to hit my spots out there today, controlling my fastball. My change up was big for me today. When it works like it did today, it's my best pitch.”
While Portage played a clean game in the field, St. Michael made five errors and the Beavers took full advantage.
“Every time we made a mistake, they capitalized on it. It was like clockwork,” St. Michael Manager Denny Gramling said. “They capitalized on all of them. Collin Smay threw 100 pitches when I pulled him, and a lot of that was the fact that we didn’t make the plays and he had to throw that many more pitches.”
Portage got on the board in the top of the second. C.W. Miller drew a leadoff walk before Bryja lined a double to right-center to chase Miller. Bryja later scored on an error.
The No. 6-seed Beavers (10-11) tacked on another run in the fourth on an Evan Price (2-for-4, two RBI) RBI-infield single.
Third-seeded St. Michael answered with a run in the bottom half of the fourth. Ryan Wilson (2-for-2) and Spencer Ivock singled before pinch runner Blake Ivock scored on a wild pitch.
Bryja struck out the last batter with a runner at third.
Portage answered with two more runs in the fifth inning. Michael Bryja (2-for-3, RBI, two runs) brought in a run with an RBI-single to right, followed by a sacrifice fly from Zach Coukart.
“The last two games he (Bryja) pitched against us, he totally dominated us,” Gramling said. “When we got it to 3-1 and had a runner at third, I thought we’ll make a ballgame out of it. We made a couple mistakes in the fifth and they get a couple runs and the lead stretches back out again. The way he was throwing, he didn’t need a lot of runs.”
Bryja retired seven straight between the fourth and sixth innings and threw 97 pitches, 63 of which were strikes.
Bryja also threw first-pitch strikes to 17 of the 26 batters he faced.
Portage added two more insurance runs in the seventh, scoring on an error and on a bases-loaded hit-by-pitch.
Portage beat St. Michael three of the four meetings in the regular season, but fell a game short of the Central division title.
Portage moves on to play No. 2 seed-Patton, while St. Michael will play No. 7-seed Richland.
Elsewhere in the American Legion playoffs:
Claysburg 10, Lilly 0 (5): In Lilly, Tyler Ickes held Lilly to just a hit and fanned eight batters in Claysburg’s five-inning win. Kasy Hamm was 3-for-4 with four RBI to power top-seeded Claysburg while Michael Mock was 3-for-3 with a pair of RBI.
Mark Mardula’s infield single in the fifth was Lilly’s lone hit.