Knights' rally too little, too late

VENTURA — As inning after inning passed by, it seemed as though the St. Francis High baseball team’s season was simply slipping by, as well.

The Golden Knights refused, however, to go without a fight, but the fight came too late and two runs short.

“They’ve always showed a little fight in the end,” said Golden Knights Coach Brian Esquival after his St. Francis squad had succumbed to host Buena, 5-3, in Tuesday afternoon’s CIF Southern Section Division II wild-card game.

A quick offensive start by the Bulldogs (15-10), the Channel League’s second-place team, and a stagnant response by the Golden Knights (16-13) looking flat and out of place through the game’s first six innings.

“We just didn’t swing the bats today,” said Esquival, whose team was outhit, 11-6, and was held without a hit until James Bonds led off the fifth inning with a single.

More than anything, the Golden Knights allowed Buena starter Drew Jacobs to fall into a groove, as he tossed 6 1/3 innings, holding St. Francis scoreless for the first six. He kept the Golden Knights at bay as the Bulldogs built a sizable lead with a three-run second inning and single runs in the third and fifth.

“It was a big plus for him once we got some runs early. He started throwing well and hitting his spots,” said Buena Coach Anthony Espitia of Jacobs, a sophomore. “You’ve gotta get 21 outs, though, and I knew they were gonna make a charge at us and they did.”

Perhaps fittingly, it was St. Francis senior Nick Gentili who finally awoke the Golden Knights for their swan song. Down 5-0, Gentili, one of the team’s tri-captains, lifted a double to left field to start the seventh.

Mark Saatzer then reached on an error to put runners at the corners before Gentili scored on an errant throw to second when Saatzer was advancing after a wild pitch.

Saatzer was pushed to third on a deep fly by Bonds, but was then tagged by the third baseman on a hidden-ball trick. However, the Buena pitcher had put his foot on the rubber, which translated into a balk and brought Saatzer home to score for a 5-2 score.

AJ Berglund followed with a single and then Karch Schreiner reached on a walk.

With two outs, David Hubinger poked a single to left field that scored Berglund to cut the deficit to 5-3 and put the tying run on base. That was as close as St. Francis could get in an inning, though.

“We let [Jacobs] get really comfortable,” Esquival said. “We had a couple of opportunities and we didn’t have any timely hits.”

Saatzer’s first-inning walk was erased when he was caught stealing, while Berglund’s second-inning base on balls was negated by a 5-4-3 double play.

Then, the third and fourth breezed past the Golden Knights, who saw just 21 pitches and recorded six straight outs.

“They saw things slipping away and we just kept pushing,” Espitia said.

Buena had already seen three St. Francis pitchers by the time it ended the fifth with a 5-0 lead. Chris Sember, who had pitched so marvelously in the Golden Knights’ 1-0 win against Sherman Oaks Notre Dame, struggled from the start. He threw first-pitch strikes to just four of the 17 batters he faced, giving up four runs and six hits in two-plus innings.

While Bonds got St. Francis’ bats going in the fifth, it hardly alleviated any struggles.

Schreiner added an infield single later in the fifth, but another double play ended the inning.

Yet another double play ended the sixth — it came after Hubinger doubled to lead off the inning, but his courtesy runner was then thrown out trying to advance to third.

Nonetheless, Esquival saw St. Francis’ return to the postseason as a benefit for the program going forward, but was quick to acknowledge the loss of some valuable seniors, which include Gentili, Schreiner, Sember and Scottie Morrow among others.

“We lose some good senior leadership and that’s the thing I thanked them for,” Esquival said. “I do think we have things headed in the right direction. Hopefully, we just keep going from this point on.”


 GRANT GORDON is the sports editor. He can be reached at (818) 637-3225 or grant.gordon@latimes.com.

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