WHITTIER - For all the last at-bat heroics and nailbiting dramatics that have characterized the Glendale Community College baseball team’s run to and through the postseason, the Vaqueros’ biggest triumph thus far in a magical season came with a reasonable margin of comfort.
That did little to lessen the adulation of the Vaqueros as reliever Michael Noteware struck out the last batter of the game to put the finishing touches on defeating Southwestern, 11-5, in the championship game of the Rio Hondo Super Regional on Saturday afternoon to advance to the California Community College Athletic Assn. State Championship.
“Jubilation,” said GCC’s Ellis Whitman of the team advancing to state for the first time under the tournament's current format. “It’s a great feeling. … We got it done.”
Behind a multi-faceted offense keyed by big-time contributions from Sako Chapjian and Whitman and a solid start on the mound from Thomas Korn, the Vaqueros capitalized on a plethora of Southwestern miscues to continue a historic season.
“It’s amazing,” said GCC Coach Chris Cicuto. “Absolutely, 100 % amazing.”
GCC (28-14), which went 3-0 in the Super Regional and has won five straight, will now open up play in the 2011 CCCAA Baseball State Championship on Friday at noon at Bakersfield College against San Joaquin Delta (31-11) out of Northern California. In the other opening-round game, Southern California’s Santa Ana (29-13) will face Ohlone (26-17) at 6 p.m. The double-elimination tournament runs through Sunday. GCC advanced to the state tournament in 1980 under a different format in which every conference winner competed, much like a standard single-elimination tourney.
Chapjian collected three hits, including a solo home run, drove in three runs and scored two, while Whitman tallied a pair of hits, three RBI, two runs and two stolen bases. In all, the Vaqueros stole seven bases with seven of nine starters combining for 13 hits, while also making the most of five Jaguars errors.
“It’s crazy,” said Chapjian of making it to state. “Just going through all the stuff we’ve gone through – injuries, the ups and downs – this feels great.”
One of myriad injuries the Vaqueros have incurred was to captain and catcher Erik Suarez.
Suarez still had many in the stands on Sunday buzzing after his heroics on Saturday when he hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to deliver a 7-6 walk-off win over top-seeded Rio Hondo, which was later eliminated by Southwestern (26-18). Just a week prior, Chris Stroh also delivered a walk-off hit in the opening round of the regionals to lead GCC over Cypress.
But on Saturday, the Vaqueros never trailed and used a five-run outburst in the top of the seventh and a four-run surge in the ninth to turn once tidy leads into comfortable cushions en route to victory.
“It was huge,” said Whitman of the five-run seventh that turned a precarious 2-1 advantage into a healthy 7-1 lead. “It was kinda tight in [the dugout] and out there. But then, going from a [2-1] lead to a 7-1 lead, it’s a big difference.”
Chapjian gave GCC a 1-0 lead when he lifted a 1-0 offering to straight-away center on a huge shot to the deepest part of the field in the second inning.
“Honestly, I didn’t think it was going out,” said Chapjian, who was one of five Vaqueros with multi-hit games, joined by Whitman, Sean Spear (two for five with a run and an RBI), John Schwer (two for four with a walk, RBI and stolen base) and Myles Neimeyer (two for three with two walks and a run).
Glendale took a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning, as the Southwestern defense began to wilt.
Chapjian smoked a grounder to third that was fielded by a diving stop. Chapjian beat out the play for an infield single, but the throw to first was in the dirt and Chapjian raced to second on the error. After a Spear infield single followed to move Chapjian to third, Chapjian then scored on another error when the catcher tried to get him leaning at third and tossed the ball into left field. After laying down three squeeze bunts in its win on Friday against Palomar, GCC clearly had Southwestern worried about the play.
“That’s always a huge key for baseball … errors kill,” Chapjian said.
Meanwhile, Korn was workmanlike in his start. Despite often missing his spots, he soldiered through six innings, allowing one run, two hits, two walks, hitting a batter and striking out seven.
“When he had to, he made pitches,” said Cicuto of Korn. “It wasn’t pretty, but you know what, when it comes down to it, he competed.”
Korn didn’t allow a hit until a two-out single up the middle in the fifth by Matt Martinez plated Augustin Lopez, who had been hit by a pitch, to cut the lead to 2-1.
In contrast to Southwestern, GCC’s defense was errorless and came up clutch on a few occasions, as Josh Canales started a 6-4-3 double play in the fourth and Spear showcased his center-field range, chasing down a ball against the fence to end the sixth after Korn had given up a two-out double.
In the seventh, the wheels came off for the Jags.
Schwer led off with a single – just the fourth GCC hit at that point – before Neimeyer singled through shortstop against an infield playing in to defend the bunt. After consecutive bunts by GCC resulted in outs and failed to get both runners in scoring position, Ryan Daniels drew a walk to load the bases.
Then Whitman came up clutch with a slow bouncer up the middle. The shortstop fielded the play, but Whitman beat out the throw, allowing Neimeyer to score and a hustling Stroh, who came all the way around from second, to also cross the plate for a 4-1 lead.
Throughout the game, GCC wreaked havoc on the bases, as the Southwestern defense rarely held runners on and was altogether lax in defending free bases.
“That’s been our thing all year long,” Cicuto said. “We want to steal as many bases as possible.”
After Daniels stole third, Suarez blooped a single to center to score him in front of Chapjian pulling a stand-up double to left to plate Whitman and Suarez for a 7-1 advantage.
“We can do it anyway possible,” Whitman said. “We have power, but most power teams don’t have speed, but we have speed.”
The Jaguars didn’t go easy, however.
Though most every facet of GCC’s game seemed to come through on Sunday, its usually sturdy bullpen was touched up.
Joe Stephen came on in the seventh, but recorded just one out as he loaded the bases.
Noteware was then called on and was touched up for a single and a double that cut the score to 7-4 before inducing flyouts to end the inning.
GCC put the game to rest in the ninth, though.
Stroh reached base on an error to lead off and after stealing second scored on a Daniels single. Whitman followed with an RBI double before two-out singles by Spear and Schwer, coupled with errors, pushed the lead to 11-4.
“Good things happen when you have good players and good people,” Cicuto said.
And now it’s onward to state.
“Now it’s on to Bakersfield,” Whitman said. “In the beginning of the year, this is where we wanted to go. The dream came true. We’re ready. We’re ready to go there and try and get state.”