LODI—Ryan Stevenson especially likes the mound here at Tony Zupo Field.
Sonora Wildcat ace Ryan Stevenson hurls in the first inning on Wednesday against Ceres at Tony Zupo Field in Lodi. Stevenson earned his 10th win of the season with five shutout innings. JASON BUCK/UNION DEMOCRAT
The junior lefty dazzled and dominated the Ceres Bulldogs on Tuesday to help propel the Wildcats into an area where few other Sonora baseball teams have ventured.
Stevenson pitched five shutout innings with seven strikeouts and Nolan Dambacher ended all suspense with a fifth-inning grand slam and the Wildcats earned their first playoff victory since 1994, pounding the Bulldogs 9-1 in the first round of the 2012 Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV Championships.
“I love that mound right there,” said Stevenson, who won his 10th game of the season. “I felt amazing out there. I’m ready to go again already.”
With how Stevenson has dominated hitters all season at home on a mound that’s not his favorite — that should scare opposing hitters.
“It was the same old Ryan,” said Dylan Fernandes, who has caught every pitch Stevenson has thrown in 2012. “You can just talk about him all day — he’s absolutely amazing. Especially as a junior, he is just flat out amazing. It’s unreal.”
After Stevenson set down the Bulldogs in order in the top of the first, Sonora jumped on the board early.
Karson Canaday hit a sharp single to leadoff and was sacrificed to second by Wyatt Johnson. Canaday scored two pitches later on a Fernandes hard grounder that the Ceres second baseman couldn’t handle.
In the second inning, Stevenson allowed Ceres just a whiff at scoring. He walked a pair and allowed a single to load the bases, but came back with a strikeout to end the threat.
“We feel so confident throwing Ryan out there,” said Wildcat head coach Scott Johnson. “I think sometimes we maybe expect too much out of him, but he just keeps rising to the occasion. He gave up just two hits today? He just keeps getting better and better. When he’s out there, we’re a very confident team.”
After running themselves out of scoring opportunities on the base paths in the first two innings, the Wildcats got some breathing room in the fourth.
Fernandes smashed a single. Bradley Begley followed with a bullet to center.
“I think that was the hardest hit ball I’ve hit this year,” said Begley. “It was middle-middle and it felt good.”
Begley’s ball sailed well over the center fielder’s head and went to the wall for a triple plating Fernandes.
Justin Payne quickly brought home Begley with a sacrifice fly to make it 3-0, which proved to be plenty of support for Stevenson.
“We got one run and I was thinking, ‘Oh OK, that might have to do,’ but then finally we just broke it open,” said Stevenson, whose earned run average is just over one run per game. “After those guys broke it open, I felt very confident about today’s game. I knew we were gonna get the ‘W.’ ”
Sonora didn’t need more runs, but it sure got them in the fifth.
With one out, Fernandes singled and Begley singled bringing home Wyatt Johnson who reached on an error.
Payne then launched a double over the center fielder’s head to plate Fernandes. Curtis Kellogg followed with a walk to load the bases which set the stage for Dambacher.
“He walked Curtis right before me so I knew he was struggling with location,” said Dambacher. “The first two pitches to me were balls but they were close to the zone. I was looking for a fastball in and he threw it right where I wanted it, so I took it deep.”
Dambacher hit a towering drive to left. And the ball kept going up and up and up. It fought a seemingly un-winnable battle against gravity to stay in the air. When gravity finally prevailed, the ball landed over the left field fence for a grand slam.
“I saw it go up and it just kept carrying, carrying and carrying,” said Coach Johnson. “It’s 325 to the left-field fence and it must’ve went about 328. But a grand slam in a playoff baseball game — that’s a memory of a lifetime.”
“We were watching from the dugout and we didn’t know if it was out or not,” said Fernandes. “It was up in the air forever. It was a big hit at the right time. We kicked them while they were down and put the nail in their coffin.”
Dambacher has two career home runs, both are grand slams.
For Sonora (18-9), Wyatt Johnson went 1 for 3 with a double smashed to the left center-field wall, Fernandes went 2 for 3, Begley went 2 for 4, Payne went 2 for 2, Kellogg went 2 for 2, Dambacher was 2 for 3 and Ryan Dills was 1 for 1.
“We started out a little tentative, but then we got a feel for playoff baseball,” said Coach Johnson. “I saw this coming, kind of breaking out hitting-wise. We’ve been hitting the ball but right at people. A lot of kids got a lot of key hits today. Bradley, Wyatt, Karson, Justin, Dylan, they’ve been real consistent all season. But today you also saw a grand slam out of Dambacher. We got a pinch-hit basehit out of Ryan Dills — It’s coming together for everybody. I was real happy that we played as a team. We were very positive with each other — a lot of positive talk. It was a good experience.”
The Wildcats advanced to the semifinals where they will face the No. 1 seed out of the Sierra Valley League, El Dorado (24-2), who defeated Manteca 2-1 in 10 innings.
The first game of the best 2-of-3 series will be played here at noon on Saturday. Game 2 will be played on Wednesday and Game 3, if necessary, will be played immediately after.
“We did just awesome today,” said Fernandes. “We came out and both of our teams were pumped up. I think all around we just played as a team and played hard baseball like we needed to — and will need to do.”