RJ Church, the starting shortstop for the San Mateo American 9-10 All-Star team, had a split second to evaluate his situation.
The worst thing that could happen was he makes the first out at home plate in a game that was suddenly tied in the bottom of the sixth.
Church broke for the plate, slid under a diving tag attempt by San Mateo National catcher Kai Castro and scored the game-winning run in dramatic fashion as SMA walked off with a 2-1 win over rival San Mateo National to capture the District 52 9-10 All-Star tournament championship.
“That was all RJ,” said SMA manager Steve Church. “He’s always been really aggressive on the basepaths.”
With the win, SMA moves on to the Section 3 tournament, which will be hosted by District 57 in the East Bay, at a time and date to be determined.
SMA had been handcuffed by SMN starting pitcher Milo Morelli for the first five innings before it finally strung some hits together. Trailing 1-0 going into its final at-bat in the bottom of the sixth, SMA rallied. Cooper Hipps led off the inning with a full-count single to left. RJ Church followed with another single to left on a 1-2 count to bring up clean-up hitter Jesus Olivas, who jumped on the first pitch and rifled it into the right-center field gap.
Jared Wong, who was pinch running for Hipps, scored the tying run easily as RJ Church pulled into third on Olivas’ stand-up double.
But when the SMN pitcher bobbled the ball on the throw back into the infield and it rolled away from him, and with no one covering the plate, RJ Church bolted for home.
“I saw the ball move away from the pitcher. I saw no one was at home,” RJ Church said. “I think I made it (safely).”
It was a dramatic ending to a dramatic game that featured everything that makes a dynamic championship game.
First, both starting pitchers were on point. SMN starter Morelli and his counterpart, Caleb Bandel, matched each other pitch for pitch. Bandel went the distance in earning the win, allowing one run on three hits.
“The guy (Bandel) is as cool as a cucumber,” Steve Church said.
But for a while, it looked like the run he allowed would be Bandel’s downfall.
“I was so relieved (when RJ Church scored the winning run),” Bandel said. “When I let that run in, I thought I let my team down.”
It looked as if Bandel would be the hard-luck loser because while he was good, Morelli was better. Considered the best player in the tournament, Morelli scattered three hits through the first five innings.
“[Morelli] was excellent,” said an emotional SMN manager Tommy Peyovich. “Excellent pitcher and our best player.”
Added SMA manager Steve Church: “Milo, he pitched a gem. My boys couldn’t quite figure him out.”
As is usually the case in a championship game, there were a number of strong defensive plays on both sides. An unconventional SMA double play snuffed out the SMN rally after it had scored its first run in the top of the fourth, while SMN second baseman Ben Sakal, while sitting near the second-base bag, managed to throw a runner out at first to end the third inning.
After Bandel retired SMN in order to start the game, SMA had a chance to get to Morelli early, but could not get the big hit. Leo Rhein led off the bottom of the first inning with a double, but was left stranded when Morelli got the next three batters.
In the second, SMA’s Jack Hickey reached on an one-out error and moved to second on a wild pitch but, he too, was stranded by Morelli.
By that time, Morelli had settled in. He struck out the final two batters of the second inning and added his third strikeout in the bottom of the third.
In the top of the fourth, SMN finally got to Bandel, who experienced a bout of wildness in the inning. Curtis Lee led off the inning with an infield hit, beating a throw on a grounder to shortstop. Dom McDonough followed with a walk and Kurtis Lee reached on a bunt to load the bases with no outs. Sakal followed and drew an RBI walk to plate SMN only run of the game.
SMN was poised for more, but Bandel and the SMA defense wiggled out without further damage. Bandel got a strikeout for the first out of the inning before inducing a flyout to center for the second out of the inning.
SMA centerfielder Rhein threw the ball into the infield to Bandel, who misplayed the ball. The runner at second went to third — but the base was occupied. SMA catcher Julio Calderon retrieved the loose ball and fired down to second baseman Jesse Sanchez, who tagged out the runner for an 8-1-2-4 double play to end the inning.
It looked as if SMA was poised to tie the game in the bottom of the frame when, with one out, Olivas blooped a single to left. Following a flyout, Hickey doubled to the gap in right-center to put runners on second and third.
But Morelli got out of the jam with a groundout to second base.
After that, both pitchers regained their form until SMA’s rally in its final at-bat.
“We took all six innings,” Steve Church said. “When it mattered the most, we got the hit.”
In more good news for the SMA family, the baby that was hit after a foul ball ricocheted off a light pole during the first game of the championship series Monday, was released from the hospital Monday night with a clean bill of health.