SAN JOSE — A long, tough road came to an end with a hard, tough loss for the Serra baseball team.
After starting 1-4 in West Catholic Athletic League play this year, Serra bounced back to win its last seven league games — including earning season split with WCAL champ Valley Christian — to take second place and advance to the Central Coast Section Open Division playoffs for the sixth straight year.
Top-seed Valley Christian (28-4 overall) got even Wednesday night at Municipal Stadium, though, rallying for a, 11-1 mercy-rule rule win over No. 5 Serra (20-10) in the CCS Open Division semifinals.
“We were able to keep our composure,” Serra senior Marek Palladino said. “There was no time in that game, up until that sixth or seventh inning, there was no time we thought we were out of it.”
Valley Christian sent nine batters to the plate during a five-run first. But the Padres had chances to get back into it, especially in the second and third innings. But the defense of Valley Christian first baseman Jaxson Wall loomed large, which is precisely what the utility man is counted upon for, seeing as the Warriors DHed for him.
“Jaxson has been great for us,” Valley Christian manager John Diatte said. “He’s a great athlete. We’re looking for places to put great athletes. … He can pick it a little bit and he can play a little defense.”
In the second inning, Serra looked poised to go large against Warriors starting pitcher Jonathan Cymrot.
After the Padres led off the frame with back-to-back singles by Palladino and Jeremy Villar, Zach Kenison followed with a sharp liner to the right side of the infield. But Wall made a catlike dive to snag it on the fly, then jumped to his feet and hurried to the bag to just miss doubling up Palladino on a bang-bang play at first.
“That’s two runs and you still have an opportunity for an even bigger inning,” Serra manager Chris Houle said. “And I thought we were putting good swings. It just kind of changes the dynamic of an inning when something like that happens.”
Cymrot got out of the jam unscathed, though, inducing a double-play grounder off the following batter Tyler Shaw. Then in the sixth, with one on and one out, Wall started another inning-ending double play, backhanding a one-hop shot off the bat of Kenison to start a 3-6-3 twin-killing.
Cymrot ultimately went the distance. After earning a win during the regular season in Valley’s 10-0 victory over Serra, the sophomore right-hander worked six innings to pick up the win Wednesday.
“He was able to pitch out of a couple jams early,” Diatte said. “Then when we got the lead … any pitcher, you’ve got to be able to pitch with the lead or you’re in big trouble. And I thought he got a little bit of momentum and took off.”
Cymrot breezed through the first inning, using just 10 pitches to retire the side, and that low tally included a Dominic Meza shot through the left side of the infield for a single.
Then, the Warriors rocked Serra starting pitcher Benito Valle-Jhanda, who departed after facing just five batters, while getting no outs.
Valle-Jhanda worked exclusively out of the stretch and still had trouble finding his release point, opening the bottom of the first with a four-pitch walk to Valley Christian leadoff hitter Eddie Park. When he did get into the strike zone three pitches later, senior Coleman Brigman made him pay on a hit-and-run by slamming a double to left-center past the dive of Serra center fielder Kannon Clayton to score Park all the way from first.
After senior Steven Zobac reached on an infield error to put runners at the corners, Cymrot followed with some mighty pull power, banging a double off the left-field wall to plate Brigman and Zobac. Mark Fairweather followed with a single to left to knock Valle-Jhanda out of the game.
“He was fine,” Houle said of the junior right-hander’s demeanor when he walked off the mound. “He’s a competitor. It’s just, they hit some pitches in that inning. And just knowing this is it, we had to have a little bit of a quicker hook than we might have during the season. He just left a couple pitches out over the plate … and they’re a good hitting team.”
Valley Christian didn’t stop there. Facing Serra reliever Timmy Ghiorso, senior catcher Jason Siri connected for a one-out double, driving home Cymrot and Fairweather to give the Warriors a 5-0 lead.
In the second, Valley Christian added on. After a leadoff double by Park, he moved up on a wild pitch. Then Cymrot lifted a sacrifice fly to left to up the lead to 6-0.
Serra got one run back in the top of the third when Thomas Gould scored on a wild pitch to the backstop. Valley Christian answered right back in the bottom of the third, though, when Stevie Hom drilled a solo home run to left to put the Warriors up 7-1.
In the fifth, Valley got Ghiorso out of the game after a leadoff walk to Jack McGrew. Then facing reliever Milo Cava, the Warriors baserunners had a field day. McGrew swiped second, then third, on Cava’s first two pitches of the evening. Hom delivered a one-out RBI single. Trevor Haskins then reached on an error. And Brigman cashed in with a two-out, two-run single to put Valley Christian up 10-1.
The kill-shot came in the bottom of the sixth when Hom — 3 for 4 with a homer and three RBIs — sent a ball sailing to left with the bases loaded that one-hopped the wall but was scored as a single to end it with the 10-run-rule walk-off.
Serra totaled seven hits on the night and stranded six runners throughout. Palladino paced the Padres with two hits.
“It’s honestly been a grind,” Palladino said of the 2019 season. “We lost like 60 to 70 percent of our team last year with seniors. … We weren’t put in any rankings. Nobody thought really much of us. We were just able to bounce back after that rough start to the season. And that’s what Serra’s all about. Just to have that resiliency. … That’s how we were able to battle back and prove some of the people wrong.”
Wednesday marked the fifth time Serra has met Valley Christian in the CCS postseason. The Padres have won just one of those matchups, a 2-1 victory in the Division I quarterfinals in 2009. Valley Christian previously won 1-0 in the 2006 Division I semifinals; 2-1 in the 2009 Division I quarterfinals; and 4-3 in the 2017 Open Division championship game.
With the win, Valley Christian advances to face No. 2 Mitty in Saturday’s CCS Open Division championship game. Mitty eliminated No. 6 San Benito with a 15-5 win in Wednesday’s earlier semifinal at Municipal Stadium.
“It’s tough,” Houle said of his parting words to his team. “There’s only one team that gets to be the winner at the end. And I told them that I love them and it’s been a pleasure working with them. But we were really proud of their resiliency over the course of the year. We were 1-4 in league and 5-6 overall, we weren’t even going to be in CCS at that point. … They turned it around. And credit to our guys for figuring that out and going with it all year long. It was great to be around them, especially that last couple of months.”