SANTA ROSA — It is the rare occasion when “heartbreaking” is a suitable descriptor on the baseball diamond. Saturday’s regional playoff finale was one of those occasions for the College of San Mateo.
After taking a one-game lead in the best-of-three playoff series Friday at Santa Rosa Junior College, the Bulldogs took a 4-3 lead into the eighth inning of Saturday’s wild and raucous Game 2. Then with one errant throw, the tide of the entire series changed.
By virtue of two throwing errors by Bulldogs third baseman Steven Pastora in the inning, Santa Rosa scored three unearned runs to take a 6-4 victory in Game 2 before triumphing in the series with a 4-2 win in Saturday’s Game 3 doubleheader nightcap.
With two on and two out in the fateful eighth inning of Game 2, Santa Rosa’s Phil Ramos hit a slow chopper to third which Pastora fielded on the run. With plenty of time to throw across the diamond, Pastora elected not to plant his feet. When he attempted, on the run, to toss the ball to first for the final out of the inning, the ball squirted out of his hand and sailed high over the head of CSM first baseman Dominic Orlando, allowing Parker Shaw to plate the tying run.
On the next play, Chase Stafford hit a shot to Pastora’s backhand. The freshman third baseman picked it clean from deep in the hole, but his throw short-hopped Orlando and got by the first baseman to allow Spencer Neve and Ramos to score, giving Santa Rosa a decisive 6-4 advantage.
“All the infielders knew what we had to do,” CSM second baseman Dane Vande Guchte said. “We had to catch the ball and it just didn’t happen the way we wanted it to. A few plays down the stretch just hurt us.”
While Vande Guchte finished the regular season by earning Northern California Player of the Week honors while going 11 for 18 over four games, Pastora missed the four final regular-season games with a severely sprained ankle.
In the inning previous to Santa Rosa taking the lead in Game 2, Pastora fouled a pitch off the inside of the ankle. Play was halted for several minutes while Pastora shook off the injury as CSM manager Doug Williams watched carefully.
Did Williams consider taking Pastora out of the game at that point?
“No one takes Steven Pastora out of a game,” Williams said. “He’s a gamer.”
Pastora remained in the game and played the entirety of Game 3, despite being noticeably hampered by the ankle throughout the afternoon. The freshman finished the year as CSM’s leading hitter with a .354 batting average — ranking eighth in the Coast Golden Gate Conference — and tied catcher Dylan Isquirdo with the team lead in RBIs with 24.
“He’s a great player,” Vande Guchte said. “He came back and he wasn’t even supposed to be back. He fought through his ankle injury … even though, down the stretch, he didn’t make the play he wanted to make. It’s tough. It’s hard to bounce back from that, but he’ll be a great player next year for this team.”
Along with a key Game 2 error by Bulldogs shortstop Miles Mastrobuoni that opened the door for a two-run Bear Cubs rally in the third, CSM turned in an outstanding defensive performance in the regional series.
Bulldogs center fielder Austin Lonestar turned in two great running catches to preserve a scoreless tie in the second. Then in the seventh with one Bear Cubs runner on, CSM’s infield showcased its chops as Pastora made a sweet feed to second base on a potential double-play that was broken up by the hard slide of Chase Stafford. Later in the inning, Weston Bryan hit a sharp grounder to Mastrobuoni who quickly got the ball to Vande Guchte for a crisp 6-4-3 twin killing.
CSM got 4 1/3 innings from freshman starting pitcher Conyal Cody in Game 2, then rode reliever Skylar Fuss the rest of the way. In his second appearance in as many days, Fuss took the hard-luck loss despite surrendering no earned runs.
In Game 3, Bulldogs right-hander Sam Hellinger worked into the seventh. With Santa Rosa entering the inning with a 3-2 lead, Hellinger retired the first two batters of the inning with a pair of groundouts. Then the freshman surrendered a run by allowing three straight singles that knocked him out of the game.
“Sam threw well,” Williams said. “There’s no reason to pull a guy when he’s throwing the ball that well and getting that many groundballs, in my opinion.”
Along with Game 1 starter Keone Cabinian, the Bulldogs featured a rotation of three freshman starters in the regional playoffs.
“We’ve put together a nice little staff we’ll have for next year,” Hellinger said. “So, I’m kind of excited.”
With 27 freshmen of its roster, including seven players in its playoff lineup, CSM exceeded a lot of expectations, according to Vande Guchte.
“We just fought through adversity,” Vande Guchte said. “We weren’t even supposed to be here. No one gave us a chance but we got to this point and we were one win away. Just like last year. It’s disappointing but we fought and I’m proud of this team.”