LA HABRA — It took a nightmare inning to end the turnaround season the La Cañada High baseball team dreamed up before the year began in the second round of the CIF Southern Section Division IV playoffs Tuesday.
On two different occasions, the Spartans held a two-run lead on the road at Sonora High, but they seemed like distant memories when the Raiders exploded for six runs on six hits, two La Cañada errors and a leadoff walk in the bottom of the fifth inning that fueled their 8-5 victory.
“They were just hitting the ball hard and it kept falling, there was nothing we could do,” said La Cañada catcher Johnny Selsor, who was four for four with a run batted in in the loss.
The junior added it may have been the worst inning his team's had this year.
“I don't really remember anything like that,” he said, “they just kept getting hits and we didn't know how to get them out.”
The loss ended a phenomenal campaign for La Cañada (14-8) under its first-year coach Alex Valadez, as it won the Rio Hondo League title and advanced to the second round for the first time in eight years.
“I don't think anybody could have expected any more or any less of this group, it's just a fact,” Valadez said.
Prior to Sonora's breakthrough frame in which it sent 11 batters to the plate and faced three different pitchers, La Cañada held a 4-2 advantage.
From the third inning to the fifth, momentum changed hands every inning. The Spartans got a big break in the bottom of the fourth.
Sonora's first two batters of the frame reached on a hit by pitch and infield single. With one out and both runners in scoring position, the Raiders' Brandon Chandler drove a fly ball into right field that brought the lead runner home.
La Cañada appealed the play and threw to third, and the umpire confirmed that Sonora's runner did not tag up from the base. It erased the run and kept the Spartans up, 3-2.
Clayton Herrmann (two for four) built on the momentum when he pulled a double down the third-base line that stretched into a triple on an error in left field. Selsor scored Herrmann with a single into left to give La Cañada a two-run cushion.
“We started off strong and we just gave up a couple of runs, but we battled to the last pitch,” Selsor said. “I think we played well today, it just didn't fall our way.”
The lead proved far too thin to hold up against the outburst in the bottom of the fifth by the Raiders (23-6). The threat mounted with an RBI double from Henry Bustamante (two for four, two RBI) after a leadoff walk, and Valadez made his third pitching change of the game after a sacrifice bunt. Sonora responded with three straight singles from Jake Rosander, Josh Choice and Brandon Mataisz to take its first lead, 5-4.
An AJ Oviedo sacrifice fly and RBI singles from Andrew Piraino and Gavin Blodgett capped the Raiders scoring.
“We obviously left some balls in the zone, up and elevated and they just cleared them,” Valadez said. “We can't be effective and do what we do; we need to pitch to contact, but I think we pitched a little too much to contact.”
After managing just a single in the top of the sixth, the Spartans refused to go quietly in their final at-bats of the year, even with two outs.
Selsor began a mini two-out rally with a two-out single and an error put runners at the corners. Anthony Mizrahi capped the scoring a single into left, which prompted a Sonora pitching change.
“We were ... still in this game. We still battled and I am extremely proud of everything these guys have done,” said Valadez, crediting the team's change of mentality as the biggest reason for the turnaround. “We expect to win and you can see that when we take the field. We expect to win, we don't expect to roll over.”
La Cañada opened up a 2-0 lead in the top of the first on a two-strike, run-scoring single from Scott Moulin and a lined RBI single from Mizrahi. The inning could have been greater, as a La Cañada runner was cut down at home on Moulin's single.
The Spartans didn't allow a run in the first two innings, despite allowing five base runners in that span, but they couldn't overcome two leadoff singles in the third. Blodgett (two for three, two RBI) and Bustamante tied the game with an RBI single and sacrifice fly, respectively, in the inning.
Chris Parker put La Cañada back in front, 3-2, with a run-scoring single in the bottom of the fourth. It scored Mizrahi, who was walked to lead off the inning, but the Spartans had another runner thrown out at home on the play.
It'll be a challenge for La Cañada to match that success in 2014, as it graduates 10 seniors this year, including Herrmann, Mizrahi, Parker, Moulin, Alexander Bang and Daniel del Valle, but it's one the Spartans are up to.
“I think we want to do the same thing again,” Selsor said, “keep winning league and go far in CIF.”