Manteca worked its seventh-inning magic yet again.
The Buffaloes capitalized on a two-out error, Ronaldo Tijero laced the go-ahead, two-run double and the boys in green held off Sierra in the bottom half to win 5-3 Wednesday in a duel pitting the last two Valley Oak League champions.
“We did not exactly play our best game, but the thing about people who are willing to put it out there day in and day out is they are not afraid to be down late,” Manteca coach Neil MacDannald said. “We’ve done it a couple of times this season already, but baseball is a crazy game. We had two outs with nobody on in the bottom of the seventh and we knew it wasn’t over because they’re going to fight, too.”
Sierra strung together three consecutive two-out singles off the bats of Steven Rios, Jacob Peterson and Tanner Peterson. Manteca freshman shortstop Alex Gouveia fielded Nick Oseguera’s sharp grounder and flipped it to second base for the final out of the game. The Timberwolves, though, could have ended this one sooner and force a two-way tie atop the league standings.
“Baseball’s a cruel game sometimes,” Sierra coach Jack Thomson said. “We had a chance to end it and we didn’t. Tip your hat to Manteca, they kept battling. It was a good ball game, but it was tough loss for us today. We felt like we played well enough to win. We’ll be mentally tough. We’ll be ready to go on Friday and the kids realize it’s a long season. We did kind of feel like we let one get away today.”
Manteca (5-0 VOL, 13-4 overall) opened up a two-game lead over second-place Sierra (3-2, 9-5), the reigning champion. It began the VOL schedule with a dramatic 5-4 come-from-behind win over Oakdale, which led 4-1 before a two-out error and bases-loaded walks set up Tijero’s game-winning infield single.
Tijero was again the hero on Wednesday. Gouveia reached on an infield error to jump start the two-out rally, and after Jake Menasco was hit by a pitch Gouveia was driven in by a Mitch Balmut single to tie the score at 3-3. Tijero then drilled a 0-1 offering from closer Jessie Babauta to left-center field.
“Never count this team out,” Tijero said. “For some reason it always comes down to me, but I just got to make it happen. That’s what you play baseball for, is for moments like this against cross-town rivals.
Tijero also gave his team a much-needed spark earlier in the contest after Sierra plated a run in each of the first three innings to take the lead. He led off the fourth with a double down the third-base line and scored Manteca’s first run on wild pitch. Tyler Graves-Kelso then knocked in Kyle Rachels (walked) to close the Buffaloes in, 3-2.
Tijero finished 2 for 4, and Graves-Kelso (four strikeouts, one walk, six hits) pitched through his early struggles for the win. The Buffaloes committed three errors in the first three innings, leading to two unearned runs. Rachels pitched the seventh inning for the save.
“We always come in a little (tentative) or something,” Tijero said. “We need to pick it up quick and get on them fast. We’re always a little slow to keep going.”
Much of that had to do with Sierra pitcher Anthony Arredondo, who struck out seven, walked two and scattered three hits over six innings. Five of his strikeouts came in the second and third innings.
“That’s as well as he’s pitched all year,” Thomson said. “The silver lining is, we hope, that he’s developed some confidence and that we can get that kind of effort from him the rest of the year. That’s a good sign for us.”
Chase Sperbeck (RBI, run), Jacob Peterson (run) and Steven Rios (double) had two hits apiece for the Timberwolves.
It was on this field two years ago when the Buffs clinched the outright VOL crown in the regular-season finale. They went on to claim the Sac-Joaquin Section and mythical state titles. Last season, the Timberwolves captured their first league championship since 2001.
Manteca hosts the rematch Friday with an opportunity to gain more separation in what’s considered to be a wide-open race for the title and four section playoff berths.
“To be honest, no matter the situation, to get the first one on Wednesday is always a sigh of semi-relief,” MacDannald said. “I’m not the built that way to enjoy it too long, because they’re going to come back Friday ready to play, there’s no doubt about it. We have to do the same thing and hopefully execute a little bit better.”