Hail St. Mary’s, Full Of Grace


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MORAGA, Calif. — When St. Mary’s head coach Eric Valenzuela approached his team in shallow left field following the Gaels’ 6-5 win over Washington, he was looking down at his shoes and lumbering deliberately. When he finally got in the middle of his team, he looked up and blurted out, “Big Win! That’s a good team win!”

That was followed by a raucous round of yells and howls from his squad.

Six-to-five. Against a team that was ranked as high as No. 12 in some polls.

But Coach V made sure to let them know that wasn’t going to be the be-all, end-all of their baseball weekend.

“I told them, big win, yes,” Valenzuela told me afterward. “But then I said to them, ‘Are you satisfied? Is this enough for you?’ Because I know those guys (points over to Lindsay Meggs’ Washington team) aren’t going to stop. They’re going to keep coming at us, probably even harder tomorrow. I don’t want our guys to be satisfied and then show up tomorrow and get their butts kicked.”

Coach is right, you see it happen all the time in our sport. A team sells out and gets a good win on Friday. Then, they get satisfied with that and don’t give the same kind of effort on Saturday or Sunday that they did on Friday (or in this case, on Thursday) and lose the series.

But to be honest, it didn’t look like this game was going to be ANY kind of contest early on. When the Huskies got through their batting order the first time around they had collected six hits and a walk in building up a very quick 3-0 lead. My knee-jerk reaction to watching their batting order was “Geez, these guys put Minnesota to shame.” (in reference to their hitting clinic I saw them put on at UC Irvine last Saturday.)

But two big things happened for St. Mary’s early on in the game. Starting pitcher Cameron Neff settled down and started pitching like he didn’t have a worry in the world. And secondly, his defense stepped up, getting a huge bases-loaded double-play in the first to minimize the damage and then got another double play in the second inning to snuff out any chances for another frame of crooked numbers for UW.

“Cameron was a little nervous at first, I think,” Valenzuela said. “He knew this was his last start on the mound for a home opener and I think it got to him a little bit. But credit Washington, they were aggressive and really put the bat on some good pitches.”

Cameron Neff was feeling a little low after flaming out in the first inning, but he rebounded nicely to hold the Washington bats at bay.

It’s true. The Husky batting order seemed to have made a pact with each other that they were going to swing early and often on Neff. After leadoff hitter A.J. Graffanino was able to work out of an 0-2 count and cull a walk, the next five batters went triple, single, single, single and single. Still, the score was only 3-0 after that. With the bases loaded, Neff got Christian Jones to strike out and then got that very vital double play to end the threat for more.

That turned out to be a huge play in the grand scheme of things. Coach Valenzuela said after the first six batters of the first inning, he was thinking of pulling his senior starter and going to a Freshman. But Neff proved his senior demeanor and didn’t quit, which would’ve been easy to do. He buckled down and got a three-up, three-down in each of the next three innings. It also helped to get two more double plays in those three innings. Neff eventually gave up another run in the fifth inning before he finally got the hook.

But that’s where things turned around for the Gaels. With two out in their portion of the fifth inning, Zach Kirtley worked an eight-pitch walk, then Jackson Thoreson blasted a salvo over the right field wall to tie the game at 4-4. The next inning, Joe Vranesh singled, Brett Rasso doubled and pinch hitter Andrew Shebloski knocked them both in with a two-RBI single, making it 6-5.

Andrew Shebloski’s pinch-hit two-run single turned out to be the decided factor in Thursday’s game.

Interestingly, the Gaels coaching staff then decided to bring in senior Jake Valdez, who had to sit out the entire 2016 season because of Tommy John Surgery. Valdez came in and was throwing bee-bees, going three-up, three-down in the sixth and seventh inning, then getting two strikeouts in the eighth inning all while still stifling the Husky batters.

“Jake is the best he’s ever been,”Valenzuela said. “It’s been a longer process for him to return. It’s been nearly 16 months since he last threw. And he was a little bummed out that I didn’t start him, but I wanted him to get some innings in before I threw him into the fire. He threw some innings last week in Vegas and then pitched well today. He will get his chance to start, especially if he keeps pitching like he did today.”

Valdez finally started to show some cracks in the ninth inning so he finished his stint with 3.1 innings of work and giving up three hits and one run. Of his 47 pitches, 30 went for strikes, indicating he is not showing much rust from his long rehabilitation.

Jake Valdez has made great strides since being shelved after Tommy John Surgery last year.

Eventually, the Huskies pulled within 6-5 with one out in the ninth. After the bases were loaded with two out, first baseman Kevin Milam turned in his mitt for a glove, taking the mound and getting the final out of the game, a harmless grounder to second, to lock down the win in white-knuckle fashion.

“This game was so emotional, down to the last pitch,” coach Valenzuela said. “Our guys have to come back hungry for more. I don’t think our guys are going to quit. That’s kind of the nature of our team so far.”

Washington – 300 010 001 – 5  14  0
Saint Marys – 010 122 000 – 6  10  0

WP: Jake Valdez, 1-0
LP: Leo Nierenberg, 0-1
Save: Kevin Milam, 1

– A.J. Graffanino, 2-for-4, RBI, walk
– John Naff, 2-for-4, RBI, walk
– Willie MacIver, 2-for-4, RBI

– Jackson Thoreson, 2-for-4, 2RBI, HR
– Charles Zaloumis, 2-for-3, 2RBI, walk

– Washington, 2-2
– St. Mary’s 3-0

– The unsung hero of the win for St. Mary’s was probably eight-hole hitter Charles Zaloumis, who poked out RBI singles in each of his first two at-bats, accounting for the Gaels’ first two runs of the game. He also played well at the hot corner and came away from the game with a dirty uniform that is typical of his hardscrabble style. When he gets on base, his “waterbug” style leadoff he takes from first base is sure to give any pitcher the heeby-jeebies.

Charles Zaloumis (the helmet-less one with the Karate Kid headband) was a main catalyst for the Gaels early on in Thursday’s game.

– Washington’s stellar recruiting class has had an impact for the Purple Reign already this season. The Huskies only have two homers so far this season and they have been hit by true frosh Nick Kahle and Christian Jones. Also, today’s starting pitcher and first reliever were both first-year guys as Chris Micheles worked the first three innings, giving the Huskies a 4-2 lead when he left the game. Micheles is an interesting choice for the first assignment as a weekend guy, since he is one of those crafty lefties who relies on deception and changing speeds to go along with his pin-point accuracy. He tops out at 84-85 on his “fast” ball and his changeup can crawl in at around 68-69 at times. He ended up his day with four strikeouts and four hits in his 3.0 innings of work. Leo Nierenberg came in after that and threw the next three innings, though he did give up four runs and six hits in his 16 batters faced.

– UW out-hit the Gaels 14-to-10, but also stranded eight runners, including leaving the bases loaded to start the game in the first inning and to end the game in the ninth inning. And as mentioned above, three double-plays really hurt their cause. But leadoff man A.J. Graffanino led an attack that saw six Huskies gather two hits in the game.

– Did I see right, Kansas State beat South Carolina 6-5? Wow.

A few more images from today’s Washington-St. Mary’s game

The Washington Huskies in their various forms of pregame meditation.

Freshman starter Chris Micheles used his blazing 83-85mph fastball (sarcasm alert) and David Copperfield-like off-speed stuff to keep St. Mary’s at bay for a few innings.

Joey Morgan (batting) and Jack Meggs (baserunning) each contributed an RBI to the early lead for Washington.

Apparently Jack Meggs wasn’t anticipating a throw to beat him at home plate, so he didn’t even slide on this play. St. Mary’s catcher Jackson Thoreson applies the easy tag out.

I almost forgot to mention that every time St. Mary’s three-hole hitter Zach Kiertley stepped up to the dish, so did the numerous scouts that were on hand with their video recorders.

Jack Meggs is completely freaked out at how awesome his bat is as he steps up to the plate.

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