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Pressure no problem for Cougars

Steve Lee pitches a gem and Mike Grace homers twice to lead Durant back to the region final.

By MIKE READLING

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2001


DURANT -- Durant pitcher Steve Lee is the textbook definition of what you want your closer to be.

Quiet, humble and able to perform at his best when the game is on the line. A pitcher who thrives on tough situations and seems rather bored by anything else.

Friday night during his team's Class 6A regional semifinal against Stuart Martin County and after being pressed into duty as a starter, Lee put himself into some pressure-packed situations. Unfortunately for Martin County, that also means he pitched his best.

The Durant junior powered through the Tigers lineup, escaping a second-inning, bases-loaded, no-out jam unscathed to lead Durant to a 7-1 victory. The Cougars (21-6) advance to their second consecutive region final Tuesday, traveling to Venice to play the Indians, 1-0 winners over Winter Park.

"Talk about players ... Mike Grace and Steve Lee were both outstanding tonight," Durant coach Gary Graham said, referring to Grace's two home runs to centerfield. "Mike is a big power hitter who executed in big spots and Lee didn't crack under the pressure. He's the best pressure pitcher we've ever had."

Lee (5-0) finished the game allowing one run on three hits while compiling 10 strikeouts in seven innings.

He walked around after the game with ice packs on his shoulder and elbow, but one could easily argue that he had ice water in his veins after his second-inning demolition of Martin County's rally.

The Tigers (19-12) loaded the bases against Lee, who led the county in ERA last year, with two walks and a single to rightfield. With the scored tied 1-1, No. 9 hitter Will Pitt came to the plate.

"I knew I just had to bear down and throw strikes," Lee said. "I'm a closer normally so I'm used to coming in with guys on base. I was just trying to get a ground ball or a ball back to me."

That's exactly what he got. Pitt bounced one back to Lee who threw home for the force. A strikeout and a groundout to third later, he was out of the inning and Martin County was out of the game.

"Loaded up, nobody out in a 1-1 game and you don't get a run?" Graham said. "That took some wind out of their sails."

Durant responded by scoring a run in the bottom of the inning and four in the third, and Lee didn't allow a hit after the third to seal the win.

Grace finished the game 2-for-3 with the two home runs, his fourth and fifth of the season, and three RBI.

5A-2: Plant City's season ends

Sanford Seminole scored four of its first five runs on Plant City errors and didn't stop until the umpires made it, winning its regional semifinal 13-0 in a game shortened to five innings. Plant City, which hadn't made the playoffs since 1968, finished 11-16.

-- Times staff

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