It is an old baseball axiom: Do not walk the leadoff man. The St. Mary’s High Panthers violated that cardinal rule one too many times Saturday afternoon and it cost them both the BSAL crown and a shot at the North Coast Section playoffs.
The Albany High Cougars brought home the championship banner with a bases-loaded single in the bottom of the seventh inning as they recovered from blowing a five-run lead in the late innings to take the title game 8-7 at Salesian High School in Richmond. Seven of Albany’s eight runs came across following leadoff bases on balls.
For the Panthers (13-13), the loss meant not only the end to dreams of a league title, but also the end of their postseason aspirations. As a team with a .500 record, they are ineligible for an at-large bid to the NCS tourney.
“Basically, the story is, we had only one pitcher (Joe Storno) and he pitched in the first game,” St. Mary’s head coach Andy Shimabukuro said, referring to Thursday’s victory over Piedmont High. “We knew we had to score a lot of runs to win and we just came up a couple short.”
For a while it looked as though the Panther bats might have enough punch to pull off the upset of the number one seed Cougars, as St. Mary’s jumped on Albany starter Mike Clement in the first inning. One batter after Panther leadoff man Chris Morocco drew a walk to start the game, second baseman Chris Alfert drilled a 1-0 pitch about 380 feet high over the fence in straightaway left field to give Panther starter Scott Tully a two-run cushion.
The freshman hurler could not hold the lead for long, however. The Cougars immediately pulled one run back in the bottom of the first. Then in the third, the flood gates began to burst, beginning with a leadoff walk to Ball, who scored on an Ian Gordon single. Cleanup hitter Robert Diaz followed with a double to the base of the wall in right center, prompting Shimabukuro to pull Tully in favor of reliever Marcus Johnson.
Johnson nearly escaped the two-on, one-out jam, freezing first baseman Peter Collister with a slow curveball for a strikeout. But with a two-strike count on leftfielder Paul Muse, the diminutive righthander left a curve out over the plate and the Albany player smacked it into center for a single that plated two more runs.
The wheels came off for St. Mary’s in the fourth. The Panthers placed runners on second and third with one out, thanks to a single by centerfielder Chase Moore and a bloop double to left by Joe Storno. Tom Carman then hit what appeared to be a routine sacrifice fly to medium deep centerfield. As Moore raced home, however, Albany centerfielder Eddie Izumizaki alertly threw behind Storno at second base, catching the first baseman off the bag for the third out before Moore crossed home plate.
In the bottom half of the frame, another Albany leadoff walk – this time to number eight hitter Doug Fisch - came back to haunt the Panthers. Johnson then walked James Izumizaki on four pitches with two outs, leaving no room at first base for an intentional walk to Gordon, the league MVP. Gordon took a 2-0 fastball and drove it the other way for a three-run, opposite field homer and a 7-2 lead.
“My coach told me I was going to get a lot of junk,” the Cougars’ star catcher said later. “I got a 2-0 count and I just waited for my pitch.”
For Shimabukuro and St. Mary’s, it was the walk to Izumizaki that stung the most.
“There’s only so many times you can pitch around him,” the coach said. “We didn’t get the right guys out so we could pitch around him. Their one and two guys really set the table.”
With only three innings possibly remaining in their year, however, St. Mary’s once again showed the resilient spirit that has characterized so many of their come-from-behind victories this season. Johnson helped his own cause by igniting the fifth inning rally with a leadoff base on balls. Two batters later, third baseman Morocco hit a high, wind-aided opposite field home run to right. A double, a walk and a single further trimmed the Cougars’ advantage to 7-5.
Then, down to their final three outs in the seventh, another St. Mary’s dream comeback seemed to materialize out of thin air. Morocco set the table with a line single to center.Alfert came up with another clutch hit, a hard double down the leftfield line that drove home Morocco. Moore followed with a scorcher up the middle for what looked like a game-tying single. Albany shortstop Ball made an unbelievable play to stab the ball with a dive, but his throw to first skipped in the dirt. New Cougar first baseman Dave Klein was unable to make the pick, knocking the ball toward home plate and letting Alfert scramble home with the tying run.
But with the score finally level and a runner in scoring position, an unusual coaching decision may have cost the Panthers a shot at a game-winning run. With men on first and second with two outs, Johnson stood in the batters’ box with a 3-1 count. Shimabukuro elected to try for a double steal, and Storno, heading to third, was cut down by at least five feet for the third out.
“It was a straight steal,” the coach explained later. “We were taking a gamble with a new catcher in the game. It didn’t work out.”
Their momentum sapped, St. Mary’s lack of fresh arms became quickly apparent in the bottom of the seventh. Johnson, heading out to the mound for his fifth inning of work, immediately walked James Izumizaki on four pitches. Two more walks, one intentional to Gordon and one unintentional to designated hitter Robert Diaz, loaded the bases with no outs. Klein then drove the final nail into the coffin with a 1-0 single to right that plated Izumizaki with the winning run.
As the Cougar players celebrated in front of their dugout, the Panthers quietly packed up their equipment and filed down the third base line for the final team meeting of the season.
In the midst of his team’s festivities Albany head coach Giblin took a moment to praise the effort of the Panthers.
“St. Mary’s played very tough; they’re a good team,” Giblin said. “They proved they belonged here. They were every bit as good as we were except for that final run.”