Millbrae Joe DiMaggio’s season finale was anything but a regular day at the yard for shortstop Sereno Esponilla.
A 2013 graduate of Mills, Esponilla recently completed his freshman year at St. Mary’s College. Things didn’t work out for Esponilla with the Gaels’ baseball team after a three-and-a-half week stint as a walk-on, but they told him to come back in 2015, he said.
So, as Millbrae wrapped up a lackluster summer season with a 12-3 loss to the San Francisco Cardinals Wednesday at San Bruno Park , Esponilla was left to wonder if it will be the final official game of his baseball career.
“I’ve been working really hard to give myself a chance to make the (St. Mary’s) team,” Esponilla said. “I’m going to give everything I have to keep playing.”
With all certainty though, Wednesday marked the final Joe DiMaggio game of the 19-year-old’s career. And while Millbrae coughed up a 3-0 lead with a collapse in the final two innings, it was still another impressive individual showing for Esponilla.
As the team’s shortstop and cleanup hitter, Esponilla was involved in all of Millbrae ’s runs, going 2 for 3 with two RBIs and a run scored; while in the field, he made three fine plays look a lot easier than they were with his smooth range, soft hands and dynamic arm.
“I guess you’d say he’s our guy this year,” Millbrae manager Bryan Hidalgo said. “Every time he came up with runners in scoring position, he’d come through.”
Clutch hitting has been Esponilla’s calling card through his three years with Millbrae . In two previous seasons, he helped carry the team deep into the postseason by feasting with ducks on the pond. His three varsity seasons at Mills were no different. The right-handed hitter tabbed a .337 career batting average while pacing the team in RBIs in his sophomore and senior seasons. He also won the Vikings’ team triple crown as a senior, hitting .444 with one home run and 18 RBIs.
“I like playing in situations where there’s a lot of pressure,” Esponilla said. “That’s one of the situations I like hitting in the most, is with runners on base.” Wednesday, Esponilla promptly gave Millbrae a lead in just such a scenario. In the first inning, Drew Casella and Sean McHugh each drew walks then advanced on a wild pitch. And with two runners in scoring position, Esponilla roped an inside fastball down the left-field line for a pair of RBIs. Then his gutsy base-running turned a would-be double into a triple with a bang-bang, cloud-of-dust play at third. The risk paid off when Nick Healey grounded out to bring Esponilla home, giving Millbrae a 3-0 lead.
In support of Millbrae starting pitcher Jordan Ganim, Esponilla carried the offensive momentum over to defense by making a sweet play to start the second inning. Cardinals cleanup hitter Nick Rolph hit a high two-hopper with steam into the hole between short and third, which Esponilla corralled with a smooth backhand and fired across the diamond for the first out of the frame.
In the third, Esponilla made a rangy play going over the middle on a sharp grounder by Leffert Lefferts. Esponilla’s throw was a bit off the mark on that play, but his first baseman bailed him out by wrestling the ball and applying the tag as it sliced into the path of the base runner. In the fourth, when Esponilla made a similar play ranging over the middle to take another hit away from Rolph, the throw was right on target.
Ganim took advantage of his shortstop’s stellar defense by holding the Cardinals scoreless on three hits through the first five innings. But in the sixth inning, it all came crashing down as the Cardinals sent 12 batters to the plate amid an eight-run inning.
“He was throwing well for five shutout innings,” Hidalgo said. “It was his game, so I just kept him out there. … I guess he just ran out of gas.”
Millbrae ’s third baseman committed two errors on consecutive plays early in the inning to open the floodgates. Then, facing Millbrae ’s reliever McHugh, Marcus Min — as the 11th batter of the inning — punctuated the rally with a bases-loaded double to clear the bags. In the seventh, the Cardinals scored four more times, including two hit batsmen with the bases loaded.
The dismal loss ends a topsy-turvy season for Millbrae , finishing in last place in the North Peninsula League with a record of 4-16.
“We could have done better,” Esponilla said. “We had our ups-and-downs. It definitely didn’t go the way we planned. But, what are you going to do?”
For the second time in the past three seasons, Millbrae was a team without a home. According to Hidalgo , the team’s usual home field at Mills was rented to an adult team throughout the summer and was unavailable.
So, Millbrae essentially spent the summer barnstorming, often playing as the technical home team at opponents’ facilities. Wednesday at Lara Field — San Bruno Joe DiMaggio’s home yard — the grandstands were padlocked shut and the automated scoreboard was not in use. Instead, the home plate umpire kept the score by using a manual little league flip board attached to the home-plate backstop.
Hidalgo dismissed the idea the lack of home-field was a detriment to the team.
“It’s summer ball,” Hidalgo said. “Guys just come out and have fun. They’re not focusing on home-field advantage. They just come out and play.”
The Cardinals (11-13) qualified for the postseason by finishing in third place of the San Francisco League. The Cardinals, made up entirely of Lowell players, are managed by John Donohue. The longtime Lowell manager has announced he will retire after the 2015 season upon completion of his 33rd year at the helm of the San Francisco school’s team. Former South City manager Daryl Semien, a current coach for Lowell and the Cardinals, has been announced as Donohue’s successor starting in the 2016 season.