LODI—Three days after winning his 10th game of the season, Sonora ace Ryan Stevenson was on the Tony Zupo Field mound Saturday for the Wildcats in Game 1 of the best 2-of-3 series against the El Dorado Cougars in the semifinals of the 2012 CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV Baseball Championships.
It was a gutsy strategic decision made by Sonora Wildcat head coach Scott Johnson.
If the Wildcats lost, they would be down 0-1 and facing the Sierra Valley League MVP and Sacramento St. signee Ryan Dillon on Tuesday in a win-or-go-home contest.
Also, Stevenson hurled five shutout innings on Wednesday in the Wildcats demolition of Ceres (9-1) and would have just two days rest and five innings available per CIF rules.
The coach’s gamble paid off just as he was hoping.
Stevenson hurled five innings allowing just two runs while striking out six for the win and Karson Canaday pitched the final two pressure-packed innings for the save to lead the Wildcats over the Cougars 4-3 and take a 1-0 series lead.
“In their game against Manteca (in the second round), they had to throw their ace nine innings, so I knew the most they could throw him, with rules being the way they are, is one inning,” said Johnson, who is in his fifth year as the Wildcat boss. “We thought if we went with our No. 1 against their No. 2, we could steal a game right here. And that’s what happened.”
The gamble didn’t look so good early.
The third Cougar to bat, Dillon, blasted a rare two-run homer to left center off Stevenson for a quick 2-0 lead.
That’s the only mistake Stevenson would make in earning his 11th victory of the season.
“After that home run, I was a little mad at myself,” said Stevenson. “But that’s what you get for leaving that guy a 2-0 fastball right down the middle. That ball was meant to be hit and that’s what he did. But I was able to shake it off and did the best I could to get my team back in the dugout. And we came to hit.”
The Wildcats did come to hit.
Canaday led off with a searing line drive, but right at the second baseman for the first out.
Wyatt Johnson followed with a deep fly ball, which may have been a home run at Bev Barron Field, but was caught in the cavernous center field here.
The Wildcats had two loud outs and nothing to show for their solid contact.
“It started out with that first at-bat,” said Coach Johnson. “Although we didn’t get a hit, Karson lines a shot right at the second baseman and then Wyatt hits one 360 feet and it’s an out. So you knew good things were gonna happen.”
Good things started to happen for the Wildcats with two outs.
Dylan Fernandes battled his way to a base-on-balls. Bradley Begley swung at the very next pitch and lined a single to right center.
Also on the first pitch, a slow curve, Justin Payne grounded a single up the middle to plate Fernandes.
Grant Dodge followed with a line drive that short-hopped the second baseman and went for an error to load the bases for Curtis Kellogg.
Kellogg saw two sharp-breaking curveballs for strike one and strike two.
“I knew he was gonna come back with a fastball,” said Kellogg. “I didn’t think he was gonna triple up and throw me three straight curves. But I thought that fastball would be at my eyes. I didn’t think it would be right where I wanted it. I was looking fastball and he put it where I could handle it.”
Kellogg hit a hard grounder into left field to bring home Begley and Payne for a 3-2 lead.
Nolan Dambacher was next and hit a ground ball up the middle. The El Dorado shortstop got in front of the ball, but couldn’t handle it. He fell down in recovering the ball and Dodge never missed a beat.
Dodge made a hard turn at third, and once he saw the Cougar defender not watching him, he made a heads-up play and broke for home. He crossed the plate uncontested and capped the four-run, two-out rally.
“Ryan pitched a great game and got through five innings real well,” said Dodge. “We got the bats going in that one inning and that ended up being the difference in the game. We got a great group of kids and I love this team and I’m just real happy with how we’re doing right now.”
Stevenson would need no more runs. He allowed just three base runners until the fifth.
El Dorado loaded the bases with one out before Stevenson got a popup for the second out and a whiff to end the inning.
“I’m not gonna lie, I was extremely sore right off the bat today,” said Stevenson. “But I knew I was probably gonna loosen up. I didn’t have a real good bullpen session before the game so it kind of worried me, but the first inning was still a little sketchy, you know, the big fly, but that happens. I geared down and hung zeroes for the next four innings and tried to give my team a chance to win.”
Canaday pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the sixth inning and then retired all three Cougars he faced in the seventh.
“We battled,” said Canaday. “We came out excited and they hit a bomb in the first inning. After that homer, we knew, after we saw their starting pitcher, we knew we were gonna get the win. We just had that itch.”
The Sonora Wildcats are now one win away from battling for their second section championship and first in 23 years. Sonora will play Game 2 here on Wednesday at 4 p.m. If the Wildcats win, they will play for the section championship on May 28. If they lose, they will play a second game shortly after the conclusion of the first.
“I thought we played real well from start to finish,” said Kellogg. “I thought we hit the ball real well today. We only got the four runs in the first, but I thought we all hit the ball real well throughout the game. A lot of balls were hit hard but right at people and didn’t fall. We pitched our butts off. Ryan threw great and Karson came in and closed it out and did a fantastic job. It was a good game all around. This is huge going up one game. Hopefully we can get out here Wednesday and close it out. This is a real big advantage going up one game and … I love it.”
“We’ll face their guy (Dillon) on Wednesday and go from there,” said Coach Johnson. “It’s a 2 of 3 series and I like our chances right now against ... I don’t care who’s throwing. I’m sure he’s an extremely good pitcher, I hear nothing but good things about him. But you know what, there’s a lot of strong pitching in the VOL (Valley Oak league) too. Top-to-bottom it’s a tough league and we faced a lot of good pitching. So we’ll face him Tuesday and let the chips fall as they may.”