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Children participate in Dribble Oregon. (Photo by David Blair/Portland Timbers)
By AJ MAZZOLINI
East Oregonian


PENDLETON — A group of elementary-aged children chased a soccer ball on the court of the Round-Up Athletic Club, orange cones marking the edges of the “field.” The teams were split evenly by gender, but not by numbers, with nine girls facing off against four boys.

Quick math would hand the advantage to the young ladies, but an addition to the boys’ side made for more equitable teams. Standing twice as tall as any of his teammates was Brent Richards, a forward for the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer.


 
 
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By AJ MAZZOLINI
East Oregonian


1. Behind a pitcher, batter and coach recognized by Class 5A coaches as the best at their level, the Pendleton Buckaroos softball team rolled to its first state softball championship in June.

The Bucks, who finished 23-7 and outscored their five postseason opponents 40-3, beat Silverton 6-1 at the Oregon State Softball Complex in Corvallis on June 2. It was the school’s first state title since the boys’ basketball team won one in 1939.


 
 
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Dan Straily pitches against Toronto in his MLB debut. (AP photo)
By AJ MAZZOLINI
East Oregonian


OAKLAND, Calif. — Those nerves were finally setting in, prickling over Dan Straily’s entire body.

He’d done so well throughout the day, acting like it was any other baseball game. But when his spikes ground into the dirt with the first step out of the Oakland Athletics’ dugout, the nervous energy made itself known.

His cleats like perfect conductors, that prickly feeling flowed up through his entire body, compounded by the reaction from the home crowd. Hundreds of excentric souls filled the Oakland Coliseum hours before first pitch.


 
 

CLIMBING THE LADDER

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Dan Straily, formerly of Pendleton, deliver a pitchs for the Stockton Ports last summer. (Photo courtesy of Stockton Ports)

By AJ MAZZOLINI
East Oregonian

Phoenix Municipal Stadium gets crowded this time of year, as it does every year since 1982 when the Oakland Athletics made it their spring training home. The big league baseball team invades Phoenix each February, recently mining for a fresh start after five seasons without a playoff appearance.

Hardly a mile down East Van Buren, or “just across the street,” another group of players does some searching of its own. They look for that jump up the minor league ladder, the next step toward the dream of professional athletics.

They look for their name on the list.
 
 
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Top-ranked American Mardy Fish at the Western & Southern Open. (AP Photo)
By  AJ Mazzolini

MASON, Ohio — Many of his fellow countrymen might not recognize his face or his name, but Mardy Fish insists he’s fine with that.

It actually has helped his rise in the tennis world from consistently strong veteran to upper-echelon elite.

The Los Angeles resident is playing the best tennis of any American on the men’s tour, and has been for most of the year. A string of victories and deep runs in tournaments has vaulted him into uncharted territory in the world rankings. He currently sits at No. 8, amid a slew of European players, and he’s the only American in the top 20.

Fish is seeded eighth for the U.S. Open, which begins Monday in New York.

“I don’t necessarily feel like I’ll be the top American,” Fish said. “I will maybe be ranked the highest. I’ve sort of gone under the radar pretty comfortably and haven’t had to answer too many critics.”

 
 
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Bengals.com photo.
CINCINNATI — When All-Pro cornerback Johnathan Joseph left for a big paycheck in Houston in July, the Bengals needed to fill a gaping hole in a defense already expecting to struggle this season.

Just days later, the Bengals signed former Ohio State player Nate Clements. It’s like being home, Clements said with a smile, even though his hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio, is still more than 200 miles away.

But at least it’s like home, he said, especially compared with San Francisco, where he played the past four seasons.

“It feels good,” the 31-year-old said. “My family’s a lot closer. I think they’re just as excited as I am.”

After the San Francisco 49ers dumped Clements in a salary-cap move in July, the Bengals pounced on him, signing him to a two-year, $10.5 million deal.

 
 
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Andy Murray (AP photo)
By  AJ Mazzolini

MASON, Ohio — Novak Djokovic watched Andy Murray return a strike over the net, a floating entree ready to be devoured. The usual Djokovic, who reeled off 43 straight wins to capture the world’s top ranking earlier this year, would have crushed the ball off the court for a point.

Yesterday though, the Serb’s forehand put the ball into the net and left a grimace on his face.

Soon after, Djokovic opted to retire from the match due to a right shoulder injury, handing Murray the championship at the Western & Southern Open. Murray was up a set, won 6-4, and was leading 3-0 in the second when play ended.

“I would have obviously liked to have won by finishing the match,” said the fourth-ranked Murray, who won the tournament in 2008. “But sometimes it happens.”

The loss was only Djokovic’s second of the season, dropping his record to 57-2, a mark that’s earned him nine titles on the year, including two Grand Slams. He had been a perfect 33-0 on the hard court before yesterday.

“I apologize to the tournament; I apologize to the people who came here today to watch the match,” said Djokovic, 24, who had been experiencing shoulder pain for about 10 days.

 
 
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Williams announces her withdrawal from W&S Open. (AP photo)
By  AJ Mazzolini

MASON, Ohio — Serena Williams returned to tennis with a blaze this summer after a long injury layoff, but she might have pushed herself too hard on her recently healed foot.

Williams withdrew from the Western & Southern Open yesterday because of a toe injury. The former No. 1 player in the world was riding a 12-match winning streak and was due to face 10th-ranked Samantha Stosur in the second round, a rematch of the Rogers Cup final that Williams won Sunday.

The withdrawal is precautionary, she said, and should not affect her playing in the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 29 in New York.

“It’s not as bad as it was before,” Williams said of the injury, which she suffered in July 2010 after stepping on glass in a restaurant in Germany. “It’s just more of an aggravation.”

The cuts required two surgeries and put her tennis career on hiatus for nearly a year. She returned to the court in June.

 
 
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By  AJ Mazzolini

DELAWARE, Ohio — Although still not quite a mainstream sport, lacrosse has developed solid roots in central Ohio at the high-school and college levels.

Now, Major League Lacrosse will learn whether the pro game can find a niche here, as well.

MLL officially welcomed the Ohio Machine into the fold yesterday, naming Ted Garber the team’s coach and announcing that home games in 2012 and ’13 will be played in 9,100-seat Selby Field at Ohio Wesleyan University, beginning in May.

Professional lacrosse’s arrival in Ohio has been a long time coming, league commissioner David Gross said. Columbus played host to the first game on the MLL Summer Showcase Tour — the league’s traveling platform in 2000 to gain attention for its launch the following year — and the league championship game was played in Crew Stadium in 2002.

“Major League Lacrosse was really born here in Ohio,” Gross said. “So, ‘Why here?’ should be answered as ‘Why did it take us so long, why were we kicking the tires all these years, why didn’t we just plant the flag?’ ”


 
 
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Tigers closer Jose Valverde recorded his 33rd save. (AP photo)
By  AJ Mazzolini

CLEVELAND — The Detroit Tigers finally overcame whatever spell Progressive Field had cast on them for well over a year.

The Indians dropped the third in a three-game series with the Tigers 4-3 last night and fell three games behind them in the American League Central. Detroit had lost 13 straight games in Cleveland dating to last season.

The important thing for the Indians, manager Manny Acta said, is that the Tigers’ lead shrunk during the series.

“I thought it was a great series,” Acta said. “We came into this series trying to shorten up the distance and we did. The goal was to sweep them, but if you can’t sweep them, two out of three’s not bad.”

Detroit starter Justin Verlander (17-5) managed seven innings of three-hit ball and struck out 10 to become the first major leaguer to reach 17 wins this season. He also walked three Indians, two of which came around to score.

“I felt the worst I’ve felt all year,” Verlander said. “But overcoming that to still win, that’s what our job is as a starting pitcher.”