The last Apache to leave the dugout May 17 was also the one who delivered the biggest offensive play of the night as Sanger dueled arch-rival San Joaquin Memorial for the Division II championship at Pete Biden Field in Bob Bennett Stadium.
Outfielder Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez belted a home run over the fence just left of center field in the top of the sixth inning, quieting the small but extremely boisterous Memorial student fan section and giving cause for the well-traveled Apache fan base to erupt in hoots, hollers and cheers. The ball cleared the fence at about 375 yards, according to one estimate.
The score put Sanger ahead 2-1.
Ryan Esparza subsequently singled off Panther pitcher Jayden Jones. But Jones regained his composure and fanned Apache catcher Darrin Herring in the next at-bat for three outs, giving his Memorial team a chance to make amends.
Pitching for Sanger was senior Jake Harrell, who’s destined to play at the Fresno State field starting next fall. Memorial’s Tanner Sagouspe and Tyler Davis both singled in the bottom of the sixth. But then Bret Carrell of the Panthers hit a long ball into Rodriguez’s section of the outfield.
A-Rod did not miss. First out. Sagouspe stole third, but Harrell paused and let the vocal adoration of the crowd continue. California Interscholastic Federation officials reported attendance of about 1,200. At least two-thirds belonged to the Apache camp. Athletic director Brian Penner reported that 200 foam tomahawks were passed out.
Then Harrell fanned the next two batters for his fifth and sixth strikeouts of the night.
In the top of the seventh, third baseman Nathan Padilla doubled. But Memorial got a double play on the next Sanger batter, setting up the showdown that sent the game into extra innings. In the bottom of the seventh, Panther outfielder Mac Dalena scored on an Eddie Saldivar pop fly that was caught by center fielder Alex Avalos. Score was 2-2.
Rodriguez entered the game as a reliever for Harrell, who had reached his pitching limit for the night. It was the bottom of the eighth. A-Rod battled. And teammates Harrell, playing first, Mason Lopez on second and Steven “Wizard” Martinez at short stop delivered with a so-fast-it-was-hard-to-process double play, ending the inning.
Sanger fans went wild.
Memorial subbed Sagouspe in at pitcher in the ninth. Rodriguez, the first at-bat for Sanger, struck out. Then Esparza was thrown out at first. Herring slammed the ball for the fences but came up just feet short. The ball was caught.
Memorial’s Matt Alvarez then drove in the winning runner. Final 3-2.
Rodriguez took the loss hard. So did many of his teammates. They had wanted to make Sanger history. Their final games had drawn an increasing number of fans, even Vern Summers, a member of the 1950 championship team. Their 22-7-1 season made them the winningest baseball team in school history. Coach David Cuellar pointed that out to the 100 or so fans still waiting around for the Apaches to finally leave the field that night. “Thank you,” he said to the crowd.
“We worked hard all year to get to this spot,” Rodriguez said. “We had it in our hearts since day one (of practice). It was surreal, getting more surreal. I’m glad we’re here. I just wish we got the job done. I’ve never seen so many people (at a Sanger High baseball game). Hitting that home run and hearing all those people go crazy.
“It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Very likely those who attended the game will remember it for a long time. The next day at the CIF regional track meet at Buchanan High, officials talked about what a good game it had been.
“This baseball team is not a fluke,” Cuellar said. “These guys have been part of something that took a lot of hard work. So it hurts. I hurt for them. We wanted to do something for the community. This is a true community high school. They were family. I’m just really proud they showed the crowd.”
Cuellar said the level of skill and talent on the field was top notch — on both sides. “This could have been Division I,” he said.
And Cuellar gave an example. “That double play was huge,” he said, referring to the Lopez-Martinez-Harrell play in the eighth. “We took them out of their game plan. Just the way Mace and Martinez made that play was intense.”
Lopez described the play in fairly routine terms. “I fielded it, tossed it to Steven,” he said. “He just finished the job.”
Lopez, a sophomore, said the game proved a little nerve wracking, but “We were practicing all season. It hurts. We had opportunities, but we didn’t close it.”
In two to three weeks, summer ball begins and the cycle starts all over again.
Sanger vs. Fresno, semi-final
Pitching for Sanger, Alec Flores got his first two strikeouts in the first inning, setting up a Sanger at-bat that would deliver three runs and devastate any momentum the Fresno Warriors could muster.
The CIF Central Section semi-final May 15 ended with a 5-0 Apache win.
Martinez doubled in the bottom of the first, sending the ball about 20 feet from the fence in left field. Then Harrell, third in the rotation, singled. Martinez ran to third. Then Rodriguez, in a possible dry run for the championship game, tripled deep into right field, sending Martinez and Harrell home. Esparza singled and sent Rodriguez home. Score was 3-0.
Flores picked up his third and fourth strikeouts in the second inning, while the Wizard fielded a chopper and sent the third Fresno batter back to the dugout.
Sanger waited until the bottom of the fourth inning with two outs before scoring again. And it was Esparza’s time to stand out. He singled off pitcher Jordan Perez to start the inning. Then when Perez struck out Herring, Esparza stole second. He stole third when Perez struck out freshman Apache Andrew Herrera.
Then Padilla doubled. Esparza ran home.
“That was the most difficult base running I’ve had in my life,” Esparza said. “After I got the first steal, he (Perez) was like, ‘I can’t let this guy steal again.’”
But Esparza did when he wound up on third. “Good win, good team,” he said. And he was covered with dirt, his uniform an indicator of his two steals and dash for home.
Esparza singled again in the bottom of the fifth, sending Harrell home for the fifth run.
Flores was unstoppable, striking out six batters and not allowing a run. “Every pitch, it was for my brothers,” he said. “It was a team win.”
He said he just went out and pitched the game. “As soon as the first inning was gone, I kinda started rolling,” Flores said. “It’s a good game all around. Our team chemistry today was just crazy.”
Martinez said he had the feeling the day would be a good one. “As soon as we scored one (run), I said, ‘It’s over,’” he said. “Actually, once we got those first three outs, I knew."