RIPON — Manteca High freshman Kyle Rachels showed maturity well beyond his years, pitching four-plus innings of long relief.
Jake Menasco exhibited speed and grit, legging out an infield single in the fifth inning that sparked the decisive rally.
And A.J. Kieffaber delivered the knockout blow in a 4-3 victory at Ripon on Monday, coming off the bench with a two-run single.
In a non-league tilt with a potential playoff team, Manteca coach Neil MacDannald got the type of performance he hoped to see from his team.
These Buffaloes (10-9) aren’t the polished product that rolled to Valley Oak League and Sac-Joaquin Section titles a year ago. This group is young and ever-evolving, which is why MacDannald sought a late-season tilt game against a regional foe.
There are no off days for the champs.
MacDannald, who built a Hall of Fame collegiate football career on heart, hustle and hands, wants to test this team’s abilities — and sensibilities — at every chance.
“We want to see if we can work on game situations,” he said, “and get a couple of guys some innings who we may need in the playoffs or later. Just sharpen up.”
The Indians (11-8) proved a worthy adversary, putting the Buffaloes in an early hole with a small-ball approach.
Central Catholic-transfer Matt Dedonatis (single) and Jarrod Andrews (walk) plated first-inning runs to give Ripon a quick lead. Both players put themselves into scoring position by swiping second base.
Ripon kept the pressure on in the second inning, using the threat of a stolen base to unravel Manteca starter Chase McKee.
Luke Robinson led off with a single to right field and eventually scored on a pair of balks by McKee to make it 3-0. Robison was 3 for 3.
“I like to be aggressive at the beginning of a game,” said Ripon coach Jon Manrique, his team now 38 of 48 on stolen base attempts. “Anytime you can make a pitcher uncomfortable, especially at the beginning of a game, it benefits the team.”
Manteca would show its mettle down the stretch with a three-run fifth inning and a cagey freshman out of the bullpen.
Rachels logged 4 1/3 scoreless innings and notched his first career varsity win with a strikeout and a well-executed pitch-out in the seventh inning.
The 6-foot right-hander gave up four hits and walked one, but let his defense play behind him.
If Manteca is going to make a big push in the final three weeks of VOL play, MacDannald knows he’s going to have to lean on his bullpen and seldom-used pitchers like Rachels, making only his third appearance.
“The deal is if you want to make a playoff run, you need more than two or three guys,” MacDannald said. “You need guys with game experience, so this will help us a little bit.
“If we have an Achilles’ heel it’s been a little too many free passes. Obviously, we’re stressing putting the ball in the strike zone and pitch to contact. That’s one thing he will do. He has nice command and he lives low.”
Menasco continued to swing a hot bat for the Buffaloes, collecting two hits for the second consecutive game. He flipped a flare into right field, but it was his hustle in the fifth that ignited Manteca’s final rally.
The junior hit a slow roller down the first-base line and beat the first baseman to the bag. He scored two batters later on Greg Jones’ RBI double to make it 3-2.
The “hard 90” was inspiring, MacDannald said.
“This game is won and lost by a matter of inches and feet, so if you play the game hard all the time, those things are going to pay off. We just missed beating out three or four others ones,” he said. “If you’re putting pressure on them by running hard 90s all the time, it will pay off as it did today. That was a huge rally starter for us.”
After Rachels was plunked in the back, Kieffaber — inserted into the lineup after McKee was pulled —belted a two-run single into left-center.
“A.J. clutching up with that knock was huge,” MacDannald said.
The Buffaloes will jump back into VOL play with a home-and-home series against Lathrop, beginning on Wednesday.
Manteca has six games to solidify a playoff berth, or close the three-game gap with co-leaders Sierra and Oakdale, who play each other this week.
While the odds are long, MacDannald said Monday’s performance was encouraging.
“That’s baseball for you,” he said. “Our guys, like Dom (Pisano), I don’t think he got on base. So guys like A.J., Jones, Tyler (Graves-Kelso) and Jake picked us up. That’s a team for you.”
Ripon looks to snap a four-game skid at Hilmar today. The Indians are tied for second in the Trans-Valley League.
To contact Managing Editor James Burns email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at jburns1980.