NORTHEAST GLENDALE — With control of its own destiny and championship proposition, Glendale Community College's baseball team rose to its opportunity in every imaginable facet of the game.
Supplemented by flawless defense, the Vaqueros were privy to yet another stellar pitching performance, while their offense was ignited by Sean Spear before visiting Bakersfield's hopes were doused by Sako Chapjian.
It all concluded with every member of the GCC ballclub celebrating upon the Stengel Field infield after a resounding 8-2 win over Bakersfield on Thursday afternoon bestowed the Vaqueros with their first Western State Conference South Division title since 2002.
"It's huge. I just really wanted to win it," said Chapjian, who blasted a seventh-inning grand slam over the left-field fence that brought the Vaqueros' lead from a precarious one-run advantage to a 7-2 benefit. "We knew we had the capability. It's just huge for the team."
While Chapjian's home run put the Vaqueros ahead for good, it was the dramatics of Spear that turned the game for GCC in the sixth when the sophomore tripled home a run for a 2-1 lead before scoring on a brilliant squeeze play from John Schwer to score what would stand as the game-winning run.
"It just takes one for that momentum to change — I think that's what happened in that inning," said Spear, who had two of his team's nine hits. "The squeeze itself was such a momentum builder."
Not long after the Vaqueros' triumph clinched them a share of the division title, Citrus defeated L.A. Pierce, 12-2, giving Glendale the outright championship as it heads into next week's regional postseason, with pairings set to be released on Sunday.
"I couldn't be happier for our kids," said Vaqueros Coach Chris Cicuto, whose team improved to 23-13 overall and 13-8 in conference, while Bakersfield fell to 20-16, 11-10. "They've dealt with a lot of adversity, injuries, players leaving, players coming back. … It's a true testament to the character of this team."
All season long, a true testament to the Vaqueros' surge into the role of conference contender and eventual champion has been its pitching staff. On the heels of a shutout performance from Ryan Sherriff in a crucial Tuesday win over Bakersfield, starter Nick Woodward, John La and Michael Noteware combined to hold the Renegades to just two runs and five hits.
"Our pitching staff is one of the top, I think, around," Cicuto said. "We're real confident with our bullpen."
Woodward, making just his second start since missing four weeks with a shoulder injury, went five innings, allowing one run on four hits and a walk, while striking out two.
After Bakersfield jumped out to a 1-0 lead, Woodward shut the opposition down over the next four innings, as freshman infielder Josh Canales tied the game at 1 in the third when he pulled the first pitch of the inning over the left-field fence.
Spear stepped up in the sixth with a triple on a full count, just a pitch after he thought he'd seen ball four on an inside pitch that was called a strike.
"I was feeling locked in that whole at-bat," said Spear of his battle with Bakersfield starter Bryan Maxwell, who had plagued the Vaqueros early, usually with his curveball. "He'd been using his breaking ball for his out pitch, so I was just waiting on it. He just left it right in my kill zone."
Spear singed a shot into the right-center gap that scored Chapjian and saw Spear side into third before coming up with his fists pumped and the crowd and Vaqueros charged.
On the very next pitch, Schwer laid down a perfect squeeze bunt down the first-base line that scored Spear. It was a play the Vaqs had run with Schwer in the fourth, only to see Erik Suarez gunned down at the plate.
"[Third base coach Alex] Kocol was real aggressive and our guys executed," Cicuto said.
Bakersfield answered in the seventh with a home run by Elijah Trail, but the Vaqueros' rebuttal in the bottom of the inning was far more impactful.
It began with Ryan Daniels reaching on a one-out error before Ellis Whitman drew a walk. After that, an infield single by Suarez, who had a pair of hits, loaded the bases and set the stage for Chapjian.
After drawing a 3-0 count, Chapjian took a strike.
"They'd been going outside with me, they were trying to get me to chase, which I did. I just told myself to slow down and sit back and wait for it," said Chapjian, who had gone 0 for three with two strikeouts in his first three plate appearances. "Three and one [count], I pretty much knew he was coming with a fastball.
"I knew for sure it was gone [when I hit it]. Just that feeling you get when you hit it, I can't explain it."
Another GCC run was tacked on in the eighth when Adam Ochart led off with a double and scored on a Daniels double.
Over the final two innings, Noteware left the Renegades with nothing to work with, tossing a pair of perfect frames highlighted by four strikeouts, including the final two outs of the game to put an exclamation mark on the victory.
"We're in first place where we should be," said Spear, repeating his sentiment that followed the Vaqueros' April 14 win over Pierce that put them into first place for the first time. "We haven't peaked yet, which is kinda the scary part. We're exactly where we want to be and we keep on getting better and better."
And with a postseason quest set to begin on May 6, the timing couldn't be better.
"When we came out here, you could just see it in their eyes, they were focused," Cicuto said. "It's not over yet, it gets tougher, but we're hitting our stride."