By RICHARD J. MARCUS
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Wednesday’s NBL tournament semifinal baseball game between Maria Carrillo and Cardinal Newman had the type of drama one would expect between rivals of equal talent and drive.
Indeed, the game delivered the goods in every way possible. In a marathon battle, the host Cardinals (20-5) finally pulled out a come-from-behind 5-4 victory in 10 innings, benefiting from several fortuitous events in the final four innings.
The victory sends the Cardinals to Friday’s final of the NBL tournament at SRJC at 4 pm against regular season champ Casa Grande, which defeated Ukiah 5-2 in the other semifinal. The Cardinals lost both regular season matchups with the Gauchos.
Against the Pumas (18-7), it has been a different story, as Cardinal Newman won all three games, each by one run.
“This is a rivalry game, it has been for some years,” Maria Carrillo coach Derek DeBenedetti said. “Both teams deserve a lot of praise.”
The third installment of this year’s match-up appeared earmarked for a Pumas win, as Maria Carrillo led 4-2 going into the bottom of the seventh inning, with reliable reliever Zach Scott on the hill. With a Cardinal runner on first and two outs, Colin Imm (3-for-5, RBI) hit a high fly that at first contact seemed destined to be the game-clincher. However, the ball fell a few feet from Pumas right fielder Grant Hermone and second baseman Patrick Gavin for a double and a 4-3 game.
After an intentional walk and an unintentional pass, the bases were loaded with two outs. Pumas reliver Clayton Andrews came in to face Luc DeLorenzo. With a 1-2 count, Andrews poured a fastball right down Broadway, belt-high, that DeLorenzo took which seemed to be a certain strike three to end the game. However, the home-plate umpire called it a ball to the dismay of the Pumas bench and fans. Several pitches later, DeLorenzo walked to tie the game 4-4 before Andrews got out of the inning.
DeBenedetti did not have an on-the-record comment about the controversial pitch or the tight strike zone in the inning.
Cardinal Newman coach T.J. McMahon said of the pitch, “It was tough to tell from where I was at. But my hitters have knowledgeable zones and have done a good job all season grinding and working counts.”
In the bottom of the eighth, Pumas reliever Jared Brazis saved the game by getting a glove on a scorcher hit by Imm up the middle with a runner on third and two outs. Brazis recovered and threw out Imm by a step.
“That was a game-saver. That hit was smoked up the middle,” DeBenedetti said. “That pumped us up.”
Maria Carrillo loaded the bases in the top of the 10th with no outs against Cardinals reliever Conner Foster, who struck out a batter before getting a remarkable diving catch by shortstop Kasey Mansen, who speared a bullet off the bat of Scott Mansen and threw to second for the double play.
“We had opportunities to win but we weren’t able to capitalize on them,” DeBenedetti said.
Foster, who got the win, pitched a heroic 5⅔ innings, giving up four hits but no runs.
“Foster has done the job for us all year,” McMahon said. “We played some great defense behind him.”
Cardinal Newman won it in the 10th inning after loading the bases with an infield hit and two perfectly placed bunts for hits to set the stage with one out for Imm, who smashed a single through the right side to plate the clincher.
“We were able to push across that last run when it counted,” McMahon said.
With the NCS selection committee meeting on Sunday to set the Division II playoffs bracket, it’s possible the Pumas and Cardinals will meet one more time, this time with everything at stake.
“It’s tough to beat Maria three times in one season,” McMahon said. “It would be even tougher to beat them a fourth time.”