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Pacifica Christian Orange County baseball walks off, sprints into first CIF final

Pacifica Christian teammates pour out of the dugout to mob Scout Escobedo (5), second from left.
Pacifica Christian teammates pour out of the dugout to mob Scout Escobedo (5), second from left, after he had the walk-off hit to win Tuesday’s Division 8 semifinal game against San Bernardino at Orange Coast College.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)
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Pacifica Christian Orange County had seen its three-run lead disappear and stood one out from extra innings in Tuesday’s CIF Southern Section baseball semifinal, with anything possible, good or ill, from that point.

Up walked Blake Hayes to the plate, so forget about all that.

The freshman catalyst was unstoppable in the Division 8 showdown at Orange Coast College’s John Altobelli Park — he’s been nearly so all season — and the Tritons, in just their third campaign, trotted into Saturday’s title game as his fourth extra-base hit of the afternoon was followed by Scout Escobedo’s single to the left-center field gap and then a thunderous celebration.

The 4-3 triumph over visiting San Bernardino, built primarily upon Hayes’ expertise at bat and with the glove and sophomore right-hander Jon Stone’s eloquence at the edge of the strike zone, takes Pacifica Christian Orange County (22-6) deeper into uncharted territory, gloriously so.

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Pacifica Christian starting pitcher Jon Stone throws against San Bernardino on Tuesday during the Division 8 semifinals.
Pacifica Christian Orange County starting pitcher Jon Stone throws against San Bernardino on Tuesday during the Division 8 semifinals.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“It feels fantastic,” said head coach Chris Gomez, who has led the top-ranked Tritons from a tough first season to a CIF berth in year two and now within one victory of a most unexpected prize. “I went to a dark spot when they scored that three-spot [to tie it up], but I’m so happy for these kids. They support each other, they’ve been getting after it all year long, they work hard, they’re great kids. So they deserve it.”

They’ll play Saturday at 10 a.m. at Diamond Stadium, the home of the San Diego Padres’ Single-A affiliate Lake Elsinore Storm. Their opponent is second-seeded Azusa (17-5), a 9-5 winner at Edgewood in the other Division 8 semifinal.

“This means everything to me and this program,” said Escobedo, who had hit the ball hard but at fielders in his first three at-bats. “It’s the third year, so no one really expects us to be in the championship this early in the program, but we’re glad to be here.”

They’ve advanced this far mostly behind underclassmen. Escobedo, too, is a freshman, among five in the Tritons’ lineup Tuesday, alongside three sophomores and junior Keegan DeMots behind the plate. Of 20 players on the roster, only four are upperclassmen. Thirteen are freshmen.

Pacifica Christian's Scout Escobedo (5) drives in the game winning, walk-off run to secure the win against San Bernardino.
Pacifica Christian’s Scout Escobedo (5) drives in the game winning, walk-off run to secure the win against San Bernardino.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“They’re a young team, for the most part,” Gomez said. “Really young, so what they’re doing all year is pretty impressive for such a young ball club.”

Pacifica Christian, which had out-tallied its first three postseason foes by a combined 38-6, was in command most of the way in this one. The hosts took a 3-0 lead in the third inning through No. 9 hitter DeMots’ leadoff single, triples by Hayes and sophomore shortstop John Coopman’s and sophomore left fielder Reed Fry’s sacrifice fly.

That ought to have been enough, given Stone’s precision on the mound. He’d allowed just one hit through 5 1/3 innings, with 46 of 58 pitches for strikes.

Then things went awry in the sixth. Miller dropped a throw from Hayes on what should have been the second out, and Aiden Zuno followed with a single to right. Both runners moved up on a sacrifice bunt. Then Stone plunked Alexander De La Paz, and San Bernardino (15-5) had bases loaded.

Antonio Quintero ripped a triple to the wall in left-center and it was 3-3.

Pacifica Christian second baseman Johnny Coopman (10) tags out Isiah Wells (4) as he attempts to steal second base.
Pacifica Christian second baseman Johnny Coopman (10) tags out Isiah Wells (4) as he attempts to steal second base to end the inning.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“At that point, I feel it’s back to 0-0,” said Stone (6-2), who ended up with a four-hitter, eight strikeouts and 66 strikes on 86 pitches and has a 0.88 ERA with 59 strikeouts and just five walks in 39 2/3 innings for the year. “This is where I start over and show them my stuff again.”

He’d noticed that “the low outside corner was being called [for strikes],” hit his spots, and it led to the strikeouts and 10 grounders, two off them very high choppers that Hayes handled expertly, beating both runners by a step.

“He’s a bulldog out there,” said Gomez, who has Coopman (7-1, 0.56 ERA) ready for the final. “He pounds the zone all day long and hits spots, and it’s a good recipe to be a solid pitcher.”

Right-hander Zuno, who relieved struggling starter Shaun Bonds after successive walks to start the bottom of the second, retired the Tritons in the sixth, striking out the last two. The fourth-seeded Cardinals made nothing from a one-out single in the seventh, and it looked like Pacifica Christian wouldn’t, either.

Then Hayes, who is hitting .447, stepped in.

Along with that triple, he’d doubled twice, in the first and the fifth, stealing third base after both — his 30th and 31st stolen bases of the season — but advancing no further. He worked Zuno to a full count, berating himself after taking a strike down the middle, then popped the ball up not far beyond second base. Rikou Sasser raced in but couldn’t reach it, and Hayes took second when it bounced over the center fielder’s head.

Pacifica Christian's Blake Hayes (2) holds up at second base after hitting a double against San Bernardino on Tuesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“Blake has been doing [what he did today] all year,” Gomez said. “He’s the spark plug at the top of the lineup, [and] we knew if we could get him on base, we had a good chance.”

With Escobedo stepping into the box, Hayes figured it was a done deal.

“I knew the game was over,” he said. “He hit the ball hard all day, and eventually the [ball] is going to drop.”

Escobedo blistered the first pitch, a fastball down the middle, into the gap in left-center, and that was that.

“Phenomenal job on [Pacifica Christian’s] side,” said San Bernardino head coach Josh Doty, whose team was seeking its first Southern Section baseball final since winning the title 99 years ago. “There’s a lot of sadness out here, and I think it’s just because the trip’s over for us, and we’ve had great time, a great experience. it’s been a heck of a ride.

“To lose to a team that like that, very respectful and just a solid team, our hat’s off to them. And now, of course, we hope they go take it.”

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