SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — Dylan Ruhl has made a habit of saving his Bend North All-Star baseball team.
On Thursday afternoon he was at it again, in the biggest moment his team has ever experienced.
Ruhl grinded through a difficult bottom of the sixth inning as a reliever and made two defensive gems in center field as Bend North held on for dear life to defeat Eagle River (Alaska) Knik, 7-6, in the Little League Northwest Regional semifinals at Al Houghton Stadium.
Bend North (13-1) will face Pacific Little League (Washington) in a rematch of the teams’ tournament opener, a 10-2 Bend loss last week, in the Northwest Regional championship at 1 p.m. Saturday. The game is to be televised live on ESPN.
“My heart rate was definitely up, in the dugout there, and knowing (Alaska) had all the momentum,” said Dylan’s father and Bend manager Dan Ruhl. “They were a scrappy team — we didn’t take them lightly.”
But No. 2 semifinal seed Bend did appear to take things lightly once it built a 7-0 lead behind the resurgence of cleanup hitter Drew Steelhammer, whose two hits featured a two-run home run to right-center field.
The Bend lineup managed only one hit during the final three innings and deflated as Eagle River surged, just as the Alaskans did in pulling out an extra-innings victory over Montana on Wednesday night to secure the tournament’s No. 3 semifinal seed.
With two outs, the tying run at third base and his team in danger of blowing all of its lead, Dylan Ruhl struck out Alaska’s Jacob Kosinski to preserve the win.
“We thought when we got up 7-0, we thought the game was already over and they were just going to hand the game to us,” Dylan Ruhl reflected.
Earlier, in the second inning, Ruhl snuffed out one Alaska rally with a diving, SportsCenter-type catch in center field to strand runners at second and third. He helped thwart a threat in the fourth inning, too, with a brilliant running catch.
But Alaska (16-3) kept coming.
Ruhl’s first baserunner in the fifth was Alaska’s Billy Smith, who hit a run-scoring single to cut the Bend lead to 7-3.
In the sixth, Christian Cambridge and Ryan Gray reached base with one out and the score 7-4, and Ian Frizzelle drove in a run with his second single of the day to make it 7-5. Gray then scored on a throwing error to make it 7-6, and Frizzelle got to third on Braden Olmstead’s groundout to shortstop.
“The energy in the dugout was just awful,” Dan Ruhl said. “Once we got way up, they were looking around like, ‘Hey, we’ve got this game in the bag.’
“As you can see, that Alaska team was scrappy,” the Bend manager added. “And I call them scrappy because I love that.”
Bend built its lead starting with a four-run first inning. Jackson Murphy, Dylan Ruhl and Evan Scalley began the game with consecutive singles, and Steelhammer reached base on an error. All four scored.
“You give up four errors to Oregon, who is a great baseball team,” said Alaska manager Roger Nevells Jr., “and it’s going to be really hard to beat them.”
In the third inning, Scalley walked prior to Steelhammer’s home run.
“It feels good to come out of my slump, I guess you could call it,” Steelhammer said, “and come out with that shot and be clutch.”
Dan Ruhl said any talk of a slump for Steelhammer should come with an asterisk.
“He was hitting lasers right at people for the last three days,” the manager said. “These kids call it a slump. I call it, ‘You keep hitting the ball, and it’s eventually going to get out of here.’ ”
Bend North has now matched the accomplishment three years ago of Bend South, which also reached the Northwest title game. Bend South went on to lose in the final to Big Sky Little League of Billings, Montana.
Bend North hopes for a little more in 2014.
“It feels good that we pulled out the win,” Dylan Ruhl said. “We didn’t play our best, but we showed that we can win ugly, too.”