LOS BANOS — Mateo Molieri was anxious for his opportunity, so much so that umpires twice had to tell him to get back into the Sierra dugout while he was taking practice swings.
His time in the batter’s box didn’t last long.
With the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III second-round playoff game tied in the top of the sixth against fourth-seeded Los Banos on Thursday, Molieri came through with a pinch-hit RBI double on the first pitch to give the Timberwolves the lead for good.
Chase Sperbeck followed with a run-scoring single, and No. 5 Sierra held on for the 4-2 victory that sends it to the double-elimination final four.
“I was expecting a first-pitch fastball and he threw it, so I just swung,” Molieri said. “I was just happy that I got it.”
Hunter Frisk (1 for 2, two walks) started the one-out rally by drawing a full-count walk, and Jared Bagley (2 for 4) singled to center to set up Molieri. The trio — along with starting second baseman J.T. Ortiz-Martinez, who Molieri pinch-hit for in the sixth — made up the bottom third of the lineup, which accounted for five of Sierra’s 11 base hits.
“That’s kind of been one of our Achilles’ heels — we haven’t been doing a good job in the 6-7-8-9 spots,” Sierra coach Jack Thomson said. “That was good to see.”
Ortiz-Martinez sparked the first scoring sequence of the game. He led off with a single to left and scored after Ty Kiser’s three-base hit skipped past diving center fielder Landon Ramos.
Jesse Ortiz-Martinez knocked in Kiser with a single, and Julian Cantu continued the surge with the fourth hit of the inning. Los Banos ended it with a double play.
The Timberwolves (17-9) looked to swing at first-pitch fastballs early in the contest, forcing Los Banos pitcher Sebastian Luna to throw more off-speed pitches. He went the distance, striking out five and walking three.
“We were trying to hunt fastballs early in the count, because he was able to throw his breaking ball for strikes and we didn’t want to get into breaking ball counts,” Thomson said. “I thought as the game went on we adjusted a little and squared up a few more balls.”
Sierra lefty Slyder Blyth and the defense gave the Western Athletic Conference champion Tigers (18-6-1) few chances to score despite allowing leadoff hitters to reach in four of the last five innings. Trent Mallonee drilled an RBI double in the third, and Kody Cardoza tied it at 2-2 in the fourth with a sacrifice fly.
“When things like that happens it just puts a fire under you and makes you perform,” Blyth said. “The past two games were Game 7s, so we just brought everything we needed to compete and we got it done.”
After two perfect innings, Blyth surrendered six hits — only three of which left in the infield — and a walk while striking out four. He was aided by an error-free defense highlighted by two big plays by Sperbeck in center field.
Los Banos tried to mount a threat in the bottom of the sixth after Chase Wilson led off with an infield hit. Vincent Alvarez then sent the next pitch to deep center field that Sperbeck was able to track down and reach up to grab after turning his body several times.
“Seeing a deep pop fly like that is scary,” Blyth said. “That was just great baseball.”
Sperbeck earlier came up with an unconventional double play in the fifth, grabbing Mallonee’s sharp line drive while on the run. Sperbeck continued sprinting toward the infield before lobbing it to JT Ortiz-Martinez to force out Landon Ramos at second. Ramos reached with an infield single and stole second but broke for third on Mallonee’s shot to center.
“That’s how you win — you make plays,” Thomson said. “(Assistant coach) Greg (Wilson) does a great job calling pitches but there’s nothing I do during the course of a game. It all boils down to making plays and we made more plays than they did.”
Thomson now has 606 career wins — second most in section history — and has at least two more games to coach. Up next is top-seeded Christian Brothers, which beat Sierra last year en route to claiming the SJS Division III title. They’ll face off Saturday at the University of the Pacific’s Klein Family Field starting at 1 p.m.
“We’re deep into the week and everybody is down into the bottom of their (pitching) rotation so that evens things out a little,” Thomson said. “We know they can hit, but we’ll enjoy this one tonight and worry about that tomorrow.
“To be on a bus for an hour, 15 (minutes) to an hour and a half to come here to play a very good team and beat them is special.”