The notion that it’s not how you start, but how you finish, is a staple in sports. But sometimes, it’s who finishes that can be even more telling.
The Orange Coast College baseball team’s 5-4 victory over visiting El Camino in the first game of a best-of-three Southern California Sectional series on Friday was a case in point.
OCC sophomore left-hander Kyle Robeniol used a career-high 134 pitches to close out his first complete game of the season. The victory, his eighth in nine decisions this season, avenged his lone setback, one week prior in the Super Regional series opener against Santa Ana.
Freshman Walker Keller also showed his finishing skills, coming off the bench to go two for two, including the game-winning two-run single in the eighth inning to propel the top-seeded Pirates (36-10) within one win of reaching the four-team state tournament in Fresno for the fourth time in six seasons.
Robeniol surrendered a 1-0 lead when he gave up two runs in the sixth and the No. 5-seeded Warriors (37-9) added single runs in the seventh and eighth to take a 4-2 lead.
Walker, who had a heart-to-heart discussion with OCC coach John Altobelli on Thursday, in which he discussed his frustration over limited playing time, entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the seventh. After John Balliet had singled to open the inning, Keller lined a first-pitch single to right field to put runners on the corners. After a bunt moved Keller to second, Jacob White drove in Balliet with a sacrifice fly to pull OCC within 3-2.
After El Camino padded its lead in the eighth, sophomore first baseman Eric Wagaman singled with one out to start OCC’s winning rally.
Sophomore catcher Robert Teel lined a single up the middle to put the potential tying runs on and after a flyout left runners on the corners, Balliet bounced his third hit of the day through the left side to drive in Wagaman and pare the lead to 4-3.
An errant pickoff throw to second base by El Camino starting pitcher Taylor Rashi moved runners to second and third, with Keller at the plate. The freshman outfielder from Murrieta Valley High served an inside curveball through the box for a two-run single and Robeniol did the rest.
“After Keller came through with those two RBIs, I turned to [Robeniol] in the dugout and said ‘Should we go with [closer Blair Lewis] here? because I’ve been giving him grief about not having a complete game,’ Altobelli said. “He said, ‘I want the ball! I want the ball!’ I said ‘No, we can go with Lewis,’ and he said, “No, I want the ball!’”
Robeniol, a bounce-back from the University of Oregon, allowed a one-out single in the ninth, but retired El Camino catcher Trevor Casanova, who as 13 for his previous 18 to that point and had three hits and a walk Friday, on a fly ball to center field. He recorded the final out with his fifth strikeout and was handed the ball by catcher Chris Ceballos, as teammates huddled around to congratulate him.
“I don’t think my first complete game could have come at a better time,” said Robeniol, who is committed to play at Utah next season. “I put my team in a losing position and they picked me up. I didn’t want anyone else touching the ball [in the ninth] besides me. If you ask any pitcher in a game this late in the playoffs, they would say that it was their game to finish.”
Keller was also happy to get a chance to finish off the Warriors.
“I was just happy to do it for my team,” said Keller, who hit .344 through April 8, but was just five for 21 in the 10 games since (.238), heading into Friday. “I tried to do everything I could to get my guys in and give us a chance to win. I was just trying to stay focused and wait for my opportunity. Once I got it, then I wanted to make the most of it.”
Altobelli said it was the latest of many examples of his players being opportunistic this season.
“It was good to see Walker come through,” Altobelli said. “He didn’t handle not playing the last two games very well and we had a long talk [Thursday] about being more mature about things and keeping his teammates first. He agreed. I told him after the game that I was proud of him for stepping up and being ready to go. That was huge.”
Sophomore shortstop Travis Moniot, Wagaman and Teel were all two for four, while sophomore second baseman J.T. Navarro was twice hit by a pitch and walked to help set the table for the Pirates.
Navarro also made the best defensive play of the day, ranging to his right to make a diving stab of a line drive headed for center field for the third out of the sixth.
All 11 of OCC’s hits were singles, marking just the second time this season they failed to produce an extra-base hit.
Southern California Sectional
Orange Coast 5, El Camino 4
SCORE BY INNINGS
EC 000 002 110 – 4 8 1
OCC 001 000 13x – 5 11 0
Rashi, Carr (8) and T. Casanova; Robeniol and Teel, Ceballos (9). W – Robeniol, 8-1. L – Rashi, 11-4. 2B – T. Casanova (EC), Conrad (EC), Sylvester (EC), Barba (EC).