LA CAÑADA — Daniel del Valle and Clayton Herrmann haven't feared the big moment all season long and that continued, thankfully for the La Cañada High baseball team, in the team's CIF Southern Section Division IV opener.
The Spartans seniors were called on in key bases-loaded spots Thursday against Whittier's California High at La Cañada High. Del Valle provided the offense in the form of a bases-clearing double, and Herrmann silenced the Condors' offense with a big strikeout in the top of the sixth.
Both plays were difference-makers, highlighting La Cañada's 4-2 win, the program's first postseason win since 2009 and its first time advancing to the second round since 2005.
The win kept the Rio Hondo League-champion Spartans' turnaround season alive, as it will face the winner of Friday's Sonora-Bell Gardens game in the second round Tuesday at 3:15 p.m. a season removed from a 10-14 campaign in which it tied for last place in league.
"Coach told us the CIF game we had two years ago (an 8-3 wild-card loss to Summit), this wasn't going to be like anything before. The atmosphere is a lot of different, it's definitely a lot different," said Herrmann of the difference from this season to his previous three.
Del Valle said a lot of credit goes to first-year coach Alex Valadez for the stark difference this season for La Cañada (14-7) from ones in recent memory.
"You know, coach Valadez is the most inspirational guy to have coaching you because he knows how to motivate his people," said del Valle, who was two for three with three runs batted in. "It's true, he really knows how to motivate us, get us in the game and how to produce the 'W' no matter what."
Through three innings, the Spartans were down, 1-0, and batting 0 for five with runners on base – 0 for four with runners in scoring position. They woke up in the fourth inning, as four hits scored all their runs that frame.
"We put the ball on the ground a lot better," Valadez said of the offensive breakthrough. "I think early in the game we were putting the ball in the air, a little sluggish. We beared down a little bit, put the ball into play and they booted a couple balls, and that opened up the game for us. That's what we do and we've got to keep doing that if we want to move on."
A California (18-8-1) error at shortstop allowed La Cañada's Scott Moulin to reach safely to start the fourth. A walk and a George Steckbeck (two for two) slash-hit single loaded the bases with no outs.
Chris Parker then chopped a single just over the third baseman, who was drawn in, to score Moulin (two for three). Del Valle cleared the bases when he pulled a ball down the third-base line for a double to put his team up, 4-1.
"Once I hit it I was just praying it went past the third baseman's glove and it did," del Valle said. "It felt good to put some runs on the board and do what I could to make sure we made it on to the next round."
"In all honesty, he's been the guy that's been clutch," Valadez said of del Valle, his No. 9 hitter. "For some reason, the ball always kind of finds people who work hard. Daniel del Valle is the epitome of a kid that works the hardest and wants the ball. Regardless of where he's at in the lineup, he's got a lot of confidence and the team has a lot of confidence in him."
It was a lead the Spartans wouldn't relinquish, thanks to a strong day from their pitchers. Starter Justin Lewis allowed four hits, a walk, both runs (one earned) and struck out three through 4 1/3 innings.
When the Condors pulled within two, 4-2, on an RBI single with one out from Anthony Von Slomski in the top of the fifth, Valadez turned to reliever Anthony Mizrahi. The senior, who'd just made a great diving catch at third a play before, induced a pair of groundouts – sandwiched around a walk – to walk out of the inning with a two-run lead.
When California loaded the bases on two walks and a push-bunt single with two outs in the sixth, Valadez called on Herrmann, who's served as his closer all year.
"He's always effective and I don't think he's ever intimidated in any situation," said Valadez of Herrmann, who gave up two hits, no walks and added a strikeout through 1 1/3 innings. "We always put him in in the toughest ones, typically when there are two runners on, bases loaded – he's been doing it all year. He's our go-to guy, so it's just a no-brainer to me."
The senior fell behind, 2-0, to the Condors' No. 2 hitter, but bounced back with three straight strikes, getting the batter to chase a high fastball to waltz out of danger.
"It got close there, I was definitely talking to myself, 'All right, you just got to let it go and let it fly,'" Herrmann said.
California started the seventh with consecutive singles, but the threat was lessened for Herrmann when Spartans catcher Johnny Selsor caught the leadoff runner attempting to steal second with a great play on a ball in the dirt.
"I knew Johnny was going to protect everything and block everything behind there for me," Herrmann said. "It helps when you have someone like that behind you."