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February 2, 2023

BASEBALL: Balers fall in CCS championship to Palo Alto on walk-off hit

Knotted at 4 in the bottom of the seventh, after a one-out
grounder to first base by B.J. Boyd resulted in a throwing error
and allowed the junior outfielder to advance to second base as a
result, Austin Braff lined the first pitch he saw off Darin Gillies
into center field and scored Boyd from second base, sealing Palo
Alto’s first-ever CCS title in a dramatic, walk-off 5-4 victory
over San Benito at San Jose Municipal Stadium on Saturday

It was almost as if the ending had already been written; a storybook finish that at one time seemed completely improbable was now just one go-ahead run away from coming to fruition.

The Balers, who had questions earlier this year as to whether they would even repeat as champions of the Tri-County Athletic League, and whose first-year manager was let go with three games remaining in the regular season, sat tied at 4-all with Palo Alto in the Central Coast Section Division I Championship on Saturday night with their ace, Darin Gillies, who was expected to be lost for the season after he broke his throwing wrist in April, making an unexpected, gutsy, fresh-out-of-the-cast appearance in relief.

But the storybook finish ended there, at least for the Balers.

“It’s the worst feeling,” senior Bryan Granger said after the game.

Knotted at 4 in the bottom of the seventh, after a one-out grounder to first base by B.J. Boyd resulted in a throwing error and allowed the junior outfielder to advance to second base as a result, Austin Braff lined the first pitch he saw off Gillies into center field and scored Boyd from second base, sealing No. 3 Palo Alto’s first-ever CCS title in dramatic, walk-off fashion — a 5-4 victory at San Jose Municipal Stadium on Saturday night.

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It was not the way many on the Balers (23-9) had envisioned it.

“Shocking,” San Benito junior shortstop Ryan Jacob said afterward. “It’s like the worst nightmare. It’s not what I dreamed about, that’s for sure.”

With the way things were transpiring, few probably did. Following their first-round victory over Santa Teresa, the No. 5 Balers used an eight-inning, three-hit shutout by Dustin Rovella to defeat Wilcox 1-0 in the quarterfinals, then followed up with a seven-inning no-hitter by Bryan Granger in the semifinal round against Salinas to advance to Saturday night’s contest.

Rovella, who was essentially filling in for the injured Gillies during the postseason run, got the start in the championship game, too. But with Rovella (3.2 IP, 3H, 4R, 3K, 1BB) coming out of the game with two down in the fourth inning for the reliever Gillies (2.2IP, 2H, 1R, 2K, 1BB, 1HBP), who had his cast removed Wednesday and received doctors clearance to play on Friday, it appeared the full-circle ending just might yield positive results.

“I thought I pitched well. Obviously, I wish I could have a couple pitches back, but that’s just the way it goes. The ball just didn’t bounce our way,” said Gillies, who, three weeks into his break, began using a stress ball, a rice bucket and arm bands to strengthen his wrist.

“But I’m real proud of the guys,” Gillies added. “We had a real great season and a lot of our younger guys stepped up this year, even tonight …”

While the win completes an historic season for Vikings sports, which saw both the girls’ volleyball and football teams win state titles, for the Balers, who were making just their second appearance in the Division I final and first since 2007, they will have to wait another year.

“That’s a tough one to swallow,” San Benito interim manager Billy Aviles said quietly on Saturday night, moments after Boyd slid home and was greeted by a sea of Viking green in a dog pile near the Palo Alto (28-9) on-deck circle — the throw home from center field just slightly off-target.

San Benito lined up opposite the celebrations, forced to look on.

“We out-hit them, we just didn’t play catch when we needed to,” added Aviles, whose Balers owned a 10-7 advantage in the hitting department. “It’s a tough loss, but the kids battled. They battled their butts off.”

Although no one on San Benito mentioned the conditions at Muni Stadium Saturday, they were certainly less than ideal. A nearly two-hour rain delay pushed the game’s start time back to 8:56 p.m., leaving a wet field in its absence, while high winds continued throughout the night and perhaps only aided in the combined six errors between the two teams.

San Benito made four of those errors, including a pair of two-out errors, with each miscue costing the Balers a run.

“It’s tough, but at this kind of time (in the season) you can’t make excuses,” said Jacob, who made a diving stab behind the second-base bag early in the game and prevented a run from scoring Saturday.

The outreached play by Jacob helped Rovella pitch out of two early-in-the-game jams that saw Palo Alto advance a runner into scoring position each time. But in the third, following a leadoff triple by Cory Tenanes, the Balers made the first of their four errors in the game off a pop-up by Boyd, allowing Tenanes to plate the game’s first run.

In a sign of things to come later in the game, Braff then connected on a seeing-eye single through a drawn-in infield, scoring Boyd from second base and staking Paly to a 2-0 lead.

San Benito countered in the fourth when, following a single to center field by Marcus Sabatte, sophomore clean-up hitter Jacob Tonascia lifted a 1-0 fastball over the left-center field wall, his fourth round-tripper of the season.

None were perhaps more significant than that one, though. The two-run blast not only knotted the game at 2-all, but it also chased Palo Alto starter Ben Sneider (3.1IP, 3H, 2R, 2K), who retired 10 batters in a row up until Sabatte’s single, from the game.

“It felt good,” said Tonascia, who had been in a bit of a postseason slump prior to Saturday’s game, prior to hitting an up-and-in fastball off Sneider. “I knew he was gonna come with that, too.”

A single by Jacob and consecutive errors by Paly later in the fourth off reliever Drake Swezey (3.2IP, 7H, 2R, 5K) turned into another run and a 3-2 Balers lead, while San Benito gave the lead back in the home half behind a pair of errors as well, coupled with an RBI single up the middle by Tenanes.

Tonascia added an RBI single into left field in the fifth that knotted the game at 4-all, scoring Matt Vallejo, who reached on a single to left as well.

“Before I just wasn’t getting pitches and I had a bad approach at the plate,” Tonascia said. “Today, just before the game, I just worked on the approach, took a little BP and felt pretty good.”

Tonascia’s RBI hit was the last for San Benito, though. And once Swezey struck out the side in the seventh, a shift in momentum was evident.

“I just feel bad for the seniors,” Tonascia later added. “But we’ve just got to work even harder next season. We’ll have a lot of playoff experience now, and so the upcoming years we should be able to do some damage.”

Although only seven seniors will graduate from next year’s team, including Shadoe Valenzuela, Matt Vallejo, Daniel Arevalo, Cooper Sepulveda, and Gillies, Granger and Rovella, they represented a sizable bulk of this year’s squad, one that won its sixth straight TCAL title and fought through plenty of late-in-the-season adversity.

“I’m really proud of these guys. These guys dealt with a lot of adversity this year and they battled through it. For them to get here and have a chance to win CCS, that’s a victory in itself,” Aviles said. “We have a great group of kids, a lot of good kids coming back. For the seniors that are leaving, they have bright futures ahead of them.

“But these kids battled tonight.”

SB — 000 310 0 — 4 10 4

PA — 002 200 1 — 5 7 2

WP: D. Swezey

LP: D. Gillies

Andrew Matheson
A staff member edited this provided article.

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