The Valley Oak League season-ending series between intra-city rivals East Union and Sierra once again meant something for both clubs.
And once again East Union came through while eliminating the Timberwolves from the playoff picture.
At Agostini Field Wednesday, the Lancers rallied for four runs to go ahead for good in the bottom of the fifth inning, and Brett Riley got them out of a jam in the final frame for the save and a 6-3 victory that keeps East Union in contention for at least a share of the VOL championship with one game remaining.
The Lancers (10-3, 14-6 overall) clinched one of three berths to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division-IV playoffs with the win, which also guarantees them a perfect 10-0 record at home in 2011. Their postseason games will take place at neutral sites.
Sierra (8-5, 13-10) hosts the finale Friday but will play for pride as a spoiler.
Sierra hasn’t qualified for the section playoffs since 2005. In 2007 the two schools were matched up to end the regular season for the first time and the rivalry has produced some epic battles since.
Most have favored East Union, which swept with two extra-inning thrillers in 2008 to advance to the playoffs (Sierra needed to win just one to get there) and spoiled the Timberwolves’ chances in 2009 with a split.
“You’ve got two very good programs going at each other in the last week of the season, and both teams always bring the best out of each other,” East Union coach Dan Triglia said. “It’s always down to the wire.”
Nothing changed Wednesday.
East Union sophomore starter Jordan Kron began the seventh inning on the mound but had already thrown 104 pitches. After giving up a leadoff single to Dylan DeBrouwer and a four-pitch walk to Aidan Foster he was relieved by Riley.
Kron dominated at times but also had some spotty moments. He struck out nine, walked two, hit one and gave up nine hits and two earned runs.
“Obviously I was frustrated that I didn’t get to finish what I started, but that’s just me being competitive,” Kron said. “I had all the faith in the world in Brett to finish it. After he got the final out I was just as happy as if it was me who finished the game.”
Riley ended it quickly, needing just two pitches for him to get two outs.
Nathan O’Leary flew out to center field for the first one after going 3 for 3 with three RBIs against Kron. O’Leary’s booming two-run homer to right pushed Sierra ahead 3-2 in the fifth.
Riley’s next offering resulted in a groundout to second by Bret Wilson, and pinch-hitter Austin Acker’s infield popup four pitches later started the celebration.
“That’s a situation I love coming into,” Riley said. “I just knew I had to throw strikes because I knew the defense was behind me.”
Highlighting East Union’s decisive fifth-inning rally were Kron’s game-tying RBI single (the Lancers went ahead on the same play when Ronnie Limas scored after the ball was misplayed in left field) and Brock Swift’s two-run double to right.
“After I gave up the home run I thought to myself that I had to keep the team in this,” said Kron, who finished 2 for 3 with two RBIs. “It was still a one-run game and I had to bear down for the team. I had all the confidence that we could come back because we can hit. There was still a lot of baseball left.”
Sierra had its chances but left 10 base runners stranded, including three in the first inning when it mustered only a single run despite loading the bags with no outs.
“It was a great momentum booster for them and kind of a downer for us,” Sierra coach Jack Thomson said. “We get a good leadoff at-bat by Alex (Arreola), we get a good push bunt by Caleb (Young) and then they kick the ball to load the bases for us.
“We’ve got our 4-5-6 (batters) coming up and we could put up three maybe four. At that point maybe it’s different. But I thought Kron did a great job after that.”
Wednesday was pivotal for both Sierra and Sonora, which hosted three-time defending VOL and SJS champion Oakdale. Had both won, there would have been a five-way tie for first place.
But East Union and Oakdale won to continue its share of the top spot, and Manteca throttled Weston Ranch 31-0 to take sole possession of third.
East Union’s last VOL title came in 2001 and was a part of a three-way share, but there were only two playoff berths reserved for the league that year and the Lancers were left out.
Whether they share it with Oakdale or take it outright matters not to East Union. There is still unfinished business left with a talented team itching for revenge.
“We don’t care what happens up that hill,” Kron said, referring to Wednesday’s game in Sonora. “We’re concerned about taking care of business on Friday. That’s all that matters.”