What the Mission College baseball team figured would be a difficult playoff series now has become a major obstacle.
The Free Spirit ran into right-hander Brian Martineau and a finely tuned Rancho Santiago squad and dropped an 8-4 decision Saturday at Mission in the opener of a Southern California regional best-of-three set.
The loss puts the Free Spirit (26-16) in the position of having to defeat Rancho Santiago (33-11) twice today at Mission. The first game starts at 11 a.m., followed by a rubber game, if necessary.
Mission, the Southern California Athletic Conference champion, could not get to Martineau (4-3), who used a sharp-breaking split-finger fastball to limit the Free Spirit to six hits and three runs in 7 2/3 innings.
He also sent a message to the Mission baserunners early with a quick pickoff move to first that caught Jesus Perez napping in the first inning.
"We know they like to run and (Martineau) has a lot of pride in his pickoff move," Rancho Santiago Coach Don Sneddon said.
The game turned into a pitchers' duel through the first six innings, with Martineau holding to a 3-1 lead against Free Spirit ace right-hander Ray Rivera (12-3). The Dons pulled away when Rivera tired in the eighth.
"(Rivera) wasn't sharp," Mission Coach John Klitsner said. "He didn't have very good command or very good location with his pitches."
Rancho Santiago, the defending state champion, took a 3-0 lead after 4 1/2 innings. The Dons exploited most of their opportunities.
In the first, they turned a leadoff walk to David Mallas into a 1-0 lead when Darren Troilo singled to left field with two out. They increased the lead to 2-0 in the fourth when Toby Sanchez was hit by a pitch, took second on Troilo's sacrifice and scored with two out on a squeeze by Jason Minici.
In the fifth, Keith Cowley opened with a single to right and Joe Fraser bunted safely. The runners advanced on Mallas' bunt, and Matt Kastelic hit a sacrifice fly to score Cowley and put the Dons ahead, 3-0.
"There's no question those are the types of things you have to do to win these games from this point on," Sneddon said.
Mission broke through in the fifth. Leadoff batter Erick Lazerus was hit by a pitch and scored two outs later on a single to left by Dave Valdez.
Rancho Santiago got two more against Rivera in the seventh, including a bases-empty home run by Cowley, and three in the eighth on three hits and two errors. One of the hits, however, was a two-run home run to right field by Daryle Ward.
Mission chased Martineau, who struck out seven and walked none, after a two-run homer in the eighth by Derrick Ornelas (three for four). The Free Spirit added a run in the ninth off reliever Steve Rewald.
"(Martineau) shut us down pretty good," Klitsner said. "I thought we would be better and make an adjustment, but we didn't."