Rafael Diaz is still undefeated in the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs.
The Manteca junior pitched seven strong innings Tuesday, scattering just four hits as the sixth-seeded Buffaloes held off No. 11 Beyer 4-1 in a Division III opener. Diaz needed just 85 pitches and had three 1-2-3 innings in the final four. He ended the game with his seventh strikeout.
“It means a lot,” Diaz said of getting the nod to start the first-round contest. Pacific commit Ryan Ward is expected to start in the second round. “That’s back-to-back years I got to start the playoffs and we won both times. It feels pretty good.”
Manteca coach Neil MacDannald hopes Diaz doesn’t have to wait as long for his next postseason appearance. The Buffaloes (16-10) travel to No. 3 Atwater (24-4) on Thursday, if the weather cooperates. The winner moves into the double-elimination part of the tournament.
“It has been like that all year,” MacDannald said. “Every time he’s gotten the ball, he has given us the opportunity to win. He has gotten stronger down the stretch in the season when we need him the most.
“I’m real proud of him and the way he battles out there. Hopefully he gets another chance in this tournament. It would be really nice to be able to run him out there again.”
The Patriots (16-11) only had one runner in scoring position through five innings. Trailing 2-0, they had two in scoring position just two pitches into the sixth. Diaz hit Daniel Lee with the first pitch of the inning and gave up a double down the third-base line to Logan Tomlinson.
Diaz got a big first out, inducing a pop fly in foul-ball territory by Brady Cardoza — Beyer’s top hitter. Justin George grounded out to drive in Beyer’s run and Manteca escaped further damage as shortstop Alex Gouveia made a snow-cone catch on Ryan Womack’s soft liner.
“I just had to keep throwing strikes,” Diaz said. “My defense helped me out again.”
Manteca regained momentum in the bottom of the sixth. Isaiah Perez came through for a leadoff, pinch-hit single, and Gouveia followed with an infield hit. Tyler Garlets, running for Perez, scored the first insurance run on a throwing error, and Gouveia was later sent home on a wild pitch.
Gouveia finished 3 for 4 to lead the Manteca attack. He’s a four-year starter who was part of Manteca’s last SJS championship team in 2016. The game is his last at Manteca. After the second round, the rest of the tournament will be played at a neutral site.
“This has been my home the last four years, so it was pretty emotional coming in knowing it could be my last game,” Gouveia said. “I just laid it all out on the line today.”
Christian Tonna singled, walked twice and reached on an error after getting down a sacrifice bunt. He was driven in by Dylan Gross’ single during Manteca’s two-run first inning. Ryan Ward doubled the lead on Austin Kovacs’ fielder’s choice. The Buffaloes could have broken it open but left the bases loaded. They stranded 10 runners in all.
Manteca is already familiar with Atwater having beaten the Falcons 4-3 in the season opener for both teams. Atwater, which finished second behind top-seeded Buhach Colony in the Central California Conference, toppled Ceres 9-5 in its first-round contest.
“It’s a rematch from Game 1 in the season, and it’ll be the last game for one of us,” MacDannald said. “They’re obviously really, really good have only gotten better all year.”