SANTA ANA — The Orange Coast College baseball team almost went the entire month of February without losing a game. On the last Friday of the month, the Pirates lost for the first time.
Six days into March, the Pirates seemed on the brink of dropping their second game of the season. This one was a critical Orange Empire Conference game at Santa Ana College on Tuesday.
Coach John Altobelli believed his Pirates tried to do too much in the first two innings because of the magnitude of the game between the top two ranked teams in Southern California. The No. 1 team made uncharacteristic mistakes and fell behind by six runs to the defending conference champion Dons.
"I could still see them panicking a little bit," said Altobelli, who advised his players to focus on winning one inning at a time.
The Pirates responded by winning five of the final seven innings to rally for an 11-8 victory.
The other two innings, OCC and the Dons played even. They aren't even in the conference standings.
The Pirates (16-1-1, 3-0 in conference) remained atop the conference with the comeback win. The Dons (12-4, 1-2) are two games back of OCC.
Taking the first game of a three-game series against Santa Ana was huge for the Pirates. Last season, they dropped two of three to the Dons.
The Pirates were on the verge of losing to Santa Ana again. That's until they slowed the game down and the offense exploded for 10 runs, half of the runs coming on three home runs.
Chris Carlson led the way. The left-handed batter blasted a two-run home run to right field in the fifth, cutting the deficit to 7-5.
Two innings later, Carlson almost belted another homer. The shot bounced off the right-field fence for a double, which brought in the go-ahead run.
The Pirates never looked back after taking an 8-7 lead, their first advantage of the day.
"This says we can come back from any game," said Carlson, who went four for five with four runs batted in and two runs.
Carlson and company had to fight back.
They were in business in the top of the first inning. The Pirates loaded the bases with one out, but only one run came across.
Right-hander Bruce Tolliver used 29 pitches to get out of the jam.
While OCC failed to take advantage of its base-loaded opportunity, the Dons didn't. They got some help as their first two batters reached base safely because of two infield errors by second baseman Justin Broussard.
The mistakes seemed to bother left-handed starter Eric Salcido, who gave up a single to load the bases.
There was a meeting on the mound after he threw two straight balls to the next batter, clean-up hitter Tyler Madrid. Salcido never found the strike zone, walking Madrid and the game was tied at 1-1.
Four pitches later, Konnor Armijo cleared the bases. Armijo clobbered a double to deep center field, giving Santa Ana a 4-1 lead.
Salcido's day was over early after Kyle Kuck made it a four-run game by singling in a run.
Ryan Evans came in relief for OCC and got the next two batters out to end the inning.
The second inning was a huge improvement for Tolliver, who retired the side in order, striking out two.
The same cannot be said about the Pirates.
The bottom half of the second started well as Evans induced two groundball outs. The next grounder looked routine until Broussard couldn't field the ball. The error was his third and it hurt OCC.
Madrid, a lefty, smashed a 3-1 pitch to straightaway center for a two-run home run to extend the Dons' lead to 7-1.
The Pirates finally tagged the ball in the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh innings. Stefan Sabol, Carlson and Eilert Meyers each homered.
Sabol hit a solo shot in the fourth to left field off Tolliver.
By the time Carlson batted in the fifth, Tolliver was gone. His replacement, Richard Diaz, faced Carlson and the two dueled into a full count.
Carlson swung for the fences, pulling a two-run shot over the right-field fence and the Pirates trailed the Dons, 7-5. The second homer in as many innings fired up OCC.
Evans kept the Pirates in the contest by shutting out the Dons in the third, fourth and fifth innings. His work was done before the sixth. He left after 4 2/3 innings (four hits, two unearned runs) with the game tied.
Meyers evened the score at 7-7. He was able to after Bijan Rademacher reached first on a dropped third strike. Meyers then slugged a two-run homer to left field in the top of the sixth.
It was a good time for Meyers to pick up his first home run of the season.
Someone in the Pirates' dugout yelled, "We aren't done yet!" He was right as the Pirates scored four more runs, allowing reliever Jed Vandernaald to improve to 4-0 after throwing two scoreless innings.
"That was huge for our pitchers to come in and just hold them at bay and just put up zeros, and let [our] offense come back and [it] did," said Altobelli, who used four pitchers out of the bullpen, including Keegan Yuhl, who pitched two shutout innings and recorded his first save.
"Our offense has been tremendous for the last few weeks, so I knew we had chances to come back."
Orange Empire Conference
Orange Coast 11, Santa Ana 8
SCORE BY INNING
OCC 100 132 310 – 11 9 3
SA 520 000 010 – 8 10 1
Salcido, R. Evans (1), Vandernaald (6), J. Evans (8), Yuhl (8) and Hugaert, Woodward; Tolliver, Diaz (5), Uchytil (6), Hawley (7) and Armijo, Baxter, Harrison. W – Vandernaald, 4-0. L – Uchytil, 1-1. Sv. – Yuhl. 2B - Carlson (OCC), Magno (SAC). HR - Sabol (OCC), Carlson (OCC), Meyers (OCC), Madrid (SAC).