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Jake Harrell pitches a win against Memorial's Panthers. SJM won the next meeting. But the Apaches came back with at least a couple more wins this week.

Nathan Padilla had a split second to react when San Joaquin Memorial’s Eddie Saldivar smacked a chopper off a pitch by Apaches reliever Alec Flores.

It was the top of the seventh inning, and the Panthers didn’t want another loss. Sanger led 3-1 in the April 9 home game, and the Apaches kept their coach David Cuellar’s command of “no doubles” burned in their collective consciousness.

Cuellar pulled Jake Harrell after he struck out the first batter in the inning, Jordan Smith, because Harrell had exhausted his allowed number of pitches. Two outs remained.

The Panthers itched to capitalize.

Padilla, the junior third baseman, didn’t allow it. He caught the bounced hit with an athletic prowess exhibited by many on this 17-4 Apache team, tagged Panther Mac Dalena as he raced from second base and then in one fluid motion threw the ball to Harrell on first.

Harrell, who switched positions with Flores, ended the game by getting Saldivar out by a hair. It was close.

“He’s a hell of a player,” said Steven Martinez, Apache shortstop, of Padilla. “Whenever we need him, we can count on him.”

After the play, the Apaches whooped and hollered, jumped into each other and did all the things a team does after it wins. The Panthers left the field quietly after handshakes. They wanted a different outcome, especially after a game that saw tempers flare from both dugouts.

Memorial dropped to 16-4 after the game.

“Two good teams out here,” Cuellar said. “A lot of passion.”

The two sit atop the County Metro Athletic Conference standings, and Memorial had a chance two days later on April 11 to even the score. Memorial did, winning 6-5 at home April 11.

“I’m really proud all these guys came out,” Cuellar said after the first game last week. “This was a great win. Now we’re one game up. That’s a good team over there. They were fighting to win the CMAC.”

The win came after a heart-breaking 6-3 loss to Madera on April 5. The Apaches had come from behind to lead 3-2, but the Coyotes rallied at the end of the game. Sanger had won the two previous contests with Madera. “Friday’s game was tough for us,” Cuellar said of the loss.

Sustained winds of about 25 mph blew into Sanger in the late afternoon and brought clouds of dust and some chilly temperatures, but Harrell said it didn’t affect his game — in which he collected at least 11 strikeouts. He praised his team for their performance that night.

“Our team’s always good,” he said. “They always pick me up when I need it. They (Memorial) got a lot of good hitters. They make you work hard.”

And Harrell, who’s headed to play for Fresno State’s Bulldogs after graduation, said he believes his team is out to make a statement this post season.

Darrin Herring, who played seven innings as catcher opposite Harrell, went to the Apache trainers afterward with a sore left hand. He left with an ice pack and a diagnosis of bruising by way of repetitive impact. His father said later that Herring, a senior like Harrell, is still using the same mitt he started the season with and that the 80 to 90 mph fastballs Harrell throws have worn it down.

Herring and Harrell have played alongside each other for many years. And for Herring a bruised hand is just another constant of his time in the sport. Nothing new.

“The season in one word,” Herring said. “It would be ‘grind.’ We just keep grinding.” As for Memorial he added, “They can swing the bat, but they have a bad attitude.”

The Apaches all appeared to enjoy themselves, joking around about such things as wetting down the field with water bottles to avoid wind from affecting the infield clay. Martinez got Herring, Padilla and Mason Lopez to crack smiles with his pre-game antics. Zack Jaurique, a second baseman from last year’s team who took in the game, said his group may have been rowdier. Jaurique’s fellow classman and teammate Anthony Schwamb also watched. He said he’s going to play football for Reedley College next year.

Ryan Esparza, another big part of this year’s team, said the Apaches have an edge because they’re all so close. As he walked out of the ballpark, Esparza said the key to obtaining  a championship “is good connections with all your teammates, a strong connection. That’s how you win.”

“It’s all love,” Martinez said of the bond his team shares. He said the win will propel the Apaches for the next contest with the Panthers. “We wanted it more. We always have confidence. If we play the right way, we’ll come out with the win.”

Padilla explained a little about what was going through his head when he made the play that ended the game and sealed the win for Sanger. He said he’d missed a similar chopper earlier in the game and wasn’t about to let the second one get past him.

“I got the force at third,” he said, possibly making a reference to the power that made Luke Skywalker a Jedi. “Then I threw him out at first.” And he thought to himself, “Take your time. Don’t be greedy.”

Alex Avalos, who started the game with a single off Panther pitcher Josh Castro, said he hoped for a sweep. He said the April 9 game set the tone. “Yessir,” he said. “Heck yeah.”

The Apaches beat Tehachapi 13-2 and El Diamonte 12-3 on April 15.

Sanger also had a game against Porterville on Tuesday.

The reporter can be contacted by email at nemethfeatures@gmail.com or by phone at the Herald at (559) 875-2511.

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