Ryan Stevenson and his Sonora teammates were one out away from advancing to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV title contest. The date was May 22. It was the bottom of the fifth inning. Sonora was ahead of the El Dorado Cougars 17-3 at Tony Zupo Field in Lodi.
Sonora Wildcat southpaw Ryan Stevenson had a 12-3 record in 2012. The junior ace is the 2012 All-Area Most Valuable Player. "Ryan was lights out for Sonora this year," said Summerville head coach Larry Gold. AMY ALONZO ROZAK/UNION DEMOCRAT
Of course this contest was over. Never mind El Dorado was Sierra Valley Conference champion and had a record of 26-4. The Cougars wouldn’t have scored 14 more runs off Stevenson if, by courtesy, he’d have allowed them to bat until August.
But there still was drama.
Up to the plate stepped SVC Most Valuable Player Justin Dillon. A 6-foot-4, 235-pound senior, Dillon sported a .516 batting average, a treacherous slugging percentage of .958, and hit a section-high 10 home runs. He had been offered a full scholarship from Sacramento State and was drafted by the Colorado Rockies.
Dillon had hit a home run off the junior Stevenson on May 19, in Game 1 of this best of 3 series. Although that homer didn’t prove fatal to Sonora — the Cats still won the game — it still burned in Stevenson’s brain.
“Until Dillon had hit that homer, Ryan hadn’t given up a homer all season,” recalled Sonora senior catcher Dylan Fernandes. “So before we left the dugout in that last inning, I could see how intense Ryan was — knowing he’d be facing Dillon again. That’s how much of a competitor Ryan is. So we talked about how best to strike Dillon out. A groundout, flyout or popout was unacceptable to Ryan and myself. This was important to us. The only possible result we’d accept was a strikeout.”
“This at-bat,” recalled the 5-foot-9, 155-pound Stevenson, “was definitely personal. It was a huge at-bat to me and I wanted that guy bad. He had taken me deep on a 2-0 pitch a few days before and so, with this final at-bat, pride was on the line.”
The right-handed Dillon stepped into the batter’s box. Stevenson, the owner of a machine-gun left arm, looked for Fernandes’ sign.
“Curveball, I wanted Ryan’s curveball,” said Fernandes. “Ryan’s curveball is absolutely amazing. I knew he’d paint the corner and throw it for a strike.”
Stevenson let it fly, Dillon held his bat. Stee-rike one!
“Well,” said Fernandes, “he didn’t swing at that first curveball so I thought let’s give him another one. So I put my glove low and outside but still in the strike zone.”
Stevenson tossed another curve, Dillon held his bat.
“I did not need to move my glove an inch,” said Fernandes. “That ball was low, outside but still in the zone.”
“I trust Dylan completely,” said Stevenson. “Dylan called every pitch of every game. And so he called for the curve on 0-and-2.”
And that’s what Stevenson delivered.
“What was so memorable about this pitch,” said Fernandes, “was that it started pretty high and down the middle then completely fell off the table and into the inner part of the plate and straight into my glove.”
Dillon held his bat. Stee-rike three!
“Here it is, two outs, final inning and Ryan is facing Dillon,” said Sonora head coach Scott Johnson. “Ryan just freezes Dillon with a breaking pitch for called strike three to end the game. Fantastic. That is my favorite Ryan Stevenson memory of this year. It was my favorite strikeout of his.”
Johnson had a whole lot to choose from. Stevenson struck out a Valley Oak League-leading 124 batters. That number put Stevenson fourth in the section. Put another way, in his 77 innings of work, Stevenson struck out 38 percent of the batters he faced.
How effective was this kid with the screaming-jet fastball and mystifying curve?
In nine of Stevenson’s 15 starts, he yielded zero earned runs. Stevenson’s 1.09 ERA was best in the VOL, a conference renown for its perpetual plethora of superlative pitchers. The most important stat of all was his record, 12-3 overall, 3-1 in postseason action.
“Ryan was our go-to guy,” said Johnson. “In every big game we had, we gave him the ball.”
So, for his overall pitching dominance, and for leading Sonora to the section-championship game, Ryan Stevenson is the Union Democrat 2012 All-Area Most Valuable Player.
“Ryan deserves this honor and I’m so happy for him,” said Johnson. “It’s an outstanding achievement.”
“I think Ryan is the right choice for this award,” said Bret Harte head coach Zack Abernathy. “Ryan was the best pitcher in our area.”
“The All-Area MVP definitely deserves to come from Sonora and Ryan was their ace and so he deserves the honor,” said Calaveras head coach Mike Koepp. “What solidified this choice for me is how he performed in the playoffs. He wins their first playoff game on a Wednesday (9-1 over Ceres) then comes back and wins another game on Saturday (4-3 over El Dorado). Then, three days later, he pitches and wins again (the 17-3 victory over El Dorado — all three Cougar runs being unearned).”
“I’m extremely shocked by this award,” said Stevenson. “It’s crazy. I never expected this. I’m really surprised. I owe this all to Dylan Fernandes. He was a phenomenal catcher. The level of trust a pitcher must have of his catcher in order to be successful is ridiculously high — and my trust in Dylan was total and complete.”
“I loved catching Ryan,” said Fernandes. “We wouldn’t have been anywhere near as successful a team without Ryan.”
“Before the season started, we did not plan on Ryan having this big of a role,” said Johnson. “Then, in early-March, I started hearing this pop in his fastball. He was gaining confidence and by the time league started I knew he was ready. Then he worked himself into the role of being ‘The guy.’
“He became so effective because you could tell that he wanted that ball in big games. The kids believed in him and they played better behind him. We always wanted to win. But with Ryan pitching, we expected to win.”
“Ryan was lights out for Sonora this year,” said Summerville head coach Larry Gold. “His production was outstanding. He has an overpowering fastball, movement on his pitches and he hits his spots. He’s the real deal.”
“What made Ryan so effective was his competitiveness,” said Fernandes. “Ryan has a deep love of the game and wants his team to win so bad. He’s a huge team player. The interesting thing is — and Ryan doesn’t always show it — he gets extremely nervous before the games. So when we’re in that bullpen pre-game, I would try and talk him down just a bit, get him to laugh. Then once Ryan was through that first inning, he was on his way.”
“My game-plan on the mound every game was to attack that strike zone,” said Stevenson. “A first-pitch strike is the key. My curve was my best pitch. I have even more confidence throwing my curve for a strike than my fastball.
“I’ll use the changeup, too. I do throw a show-me-slider once in a awhile to lefties, the ball will break away from them. And, sometimes, I’ll throw a cut-fastball.”
Incidentally, Stevenson is a good hitter. He batted .333 this year. So how would Stevenson-the-batter fare against Stevenson-the-pitcher?
“That’s an interesting question,” says Stevenson. “If I had to face myself, I’d strike out. As a hitter, I’d go after the first-pitch fastball, because that’s the best pitch you’ll see. My mentality on the mound is that if you don’t hit my first-pitch fastball, then I’ll probably go curve ball three times in a row.”
“Luckily,” said Koepp, “when we faced Sonora this season, Ryan didn’t pitch. He played right field. And I remember we had a runner on third and we hit a flyout to right. Well, holy cow, this rocket comes in to home plate from right field and the message was, ‘You’re not running on the right fielder tonight.’ Luckily, while coaching, I had held that runner at third.
“I’m happy for Ryan winning this award. But I’ll also be very, very happy if next season, when Calaveras faces Sonora, it’s not Ryan Stevenson’s turn to pitch.”