By RICHARD J. MARCUS
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Cardinal Newman’s season came to a sudden and surprising end on Tuesday as the heavily favored Cardinals, seeded No. 2, lost to visiting 15 seed Concord 2-1 in the first round of the North Coast Section Division 2 baseball playoffs.
In many ways, the Minutemen (16-10) from the Diablo Valley Athletic League are a mirror image of the gritty Cardinals (21-6). Both teams scrapped for runs on offense and relied on fundamental defense and good pitching throughout the season. But on Tuesday, Concord did the little things just a bit better, leaving the Cardinals with that empty feeling as the final out was registered.
“Concord is like us, where they are going to fight you till the end,” Cardinal Newman coach T.J. McMahon said. “That team is battle-tested.”
The game started poorly for Cardinal Newman as Concord plated two in the first inning against Cardinals starter Michael Clark. Concord cobbled together a walk and two infield hits to load the bases with one out. Mateo Sandoval followed with a sharp single to left field to score two and give the Minutemen a 2-0 lead.
“They didn’t hit Michael real hard, they had a lot of infield hits,” McMahon said. “Concord got some early opportunities that they took advantage of.”
Even so, Clark struggled with his control, issuing six walks and surrendering six hits in 32/3 innings before being pulled for Cardinals reliever Connor Foster.
Clark’s counterpart, southpaw Wesley Vickers, had complete control of his pitches, going 51/3 innings and giving up one run, four hits and no walks.
“My curveball was working for a drop-in strike,” Vickers said. “My fastball had good movement. Everything was working today.”
“Vickers did a good job of keeping us off balance,” McMahon said.
In the bottom of the fourth inning Cardinal Newman had runners on first and second, but a sacrifice bunt attempt by Bryce McChinak was pushed hard to Vickers, who threw to third to force the lead runner. The Cardinals followed with a fly out and a ground out and their opportunity was lost.
“In the playoffs, every single thing that you do gets magnified,” McMahon said of the failed sacrifice bunt. “Those little mistakes can hurt.”
In the bottom of the sixth inning, with runners on the corners and one out, Vickers was lifted for Concord reliever Josh Wiens, who surrendered a sacrifice fly to McChinak that cut Concord’s lead to 2-1. With runners at second and third and two outs, Wiens got pinch hitter Kyle Fistolera to ground out to end the threat.
“Wiens bore down and gave us a great effort,” Concord coach Matt Harrod said. “He didn’t have his best stuff today but he is a competitor.”
Foster kept the Minutemen scoreless in the final three innings to give the Cardinals a chance. Concord gave Cardinal Newman a gift in the seventh inning with a huge baserunning blunder that cost it an insurance run. With Vickers on first, Dylan Parisi hit a double down the line past diving Cardinal Newman left fielder Colin Imm. The ball rolled to the wall but Vickers inexplicably stopped at third for a moment and then raced home. He was gunned down at the plate.
McMahon said Vickers missed the base and had to retouch it, while Harrod said Vickers missed a signal from the third base coach.
In the bottom of the seventh inning, the Cardinals had runners on the corners with two outs, trailing 2-1, when Wiens fanned No. 3 hitter Imm on a full-count high heater to end the game.
It was the Minutemen’s first NCS playoff win since 1979, ending their six-game NCS first-round losing streak over the past six years.
For Cardinal Newman, disappointment and what-ifs may permeate into the summer.
“Regardless of what seed you are, it’s disappointing going out in the first round,” McMahon said. “But 21-6 during the regular season is a great season. There aren’t a lot of teams that get to 20 wins in a season.”