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With its season on the line, Sierra likes its quiet, little lefty
Keep Calm Deliver
Sierra looks to junior left-hander Leo Soto to keep its season alive today in Game 2 of its best-of-three semifinal series with Vista del Lago. With great command and quiet confidence, Soto (8-0) has pitched well in big games this season. - photo by JONAMAR JACINTO/The Bulletin

These make-or-break moments are often defined by big, imposing aces with even larger personalities, rocket arms and legitimate college and pro prospects.

Still, with their season teetering on the cliff’s edge, Sierra coach Jack Thomson likes his quiet, little lefty.

A lot.

Junior Leo Soto will pitch the second game of a three-game series with Vista del Lago today at Tony Zupo Field in Lodi. Vista leads the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV semifinal series 1-0, courtesy of a 6-3 victory on Saturday.

Soto is no stranger to elimination games. He started the Timberwolves’ playoff opener against Ceres – a 9-6 victory – giving up one earned in five-plus innings. 

“Leo has done a great job all year. Not just the pitching part – the physical part of it – we’ve also been impressed with his composure and poise. He never seems to get rattled,” Thomson said. “At the start of the year, we were concerned about whether he could throw big games for us.”

That seems like eons ago.

Soto got off to a rocky start in Valley Oak League play, spotting Sonora a 2-0 lead after one inning. Quietly between innings, Thomson and the coaching staff wondered if the junior could make the adjustment to the speed and power of the varsity game.

He had been a solid starter for the Timberwolves’ freshman and sophomore teams, but the varsity game, especially in the ever-competitive Valley Oak League, was a different animal.

Soto’s response: Five shutout innings.

“When we opened league he gave up those two runs in the first inning. For a second there we were thinking ‘Are we expecting too much out of him?’” Thomson said. “Then he throws five shutout innings – and he’s been that way ever since. He’s shown great, great poise on the mound.”

Soto hasn’t back down … not even from the seemingly insurmountable tasks.

He stared down Oakdale and helped Sierra earn a split with the perennial league and section champion.

He beat Pac-12 performer in Jacob Corn, Manteca’s resident ace and the reigning Bulletin All-Area MVP. Corn is bound for the University of Oregon.

Thomson says it’s the quiet ones you have to worry about.

Soto is 8-0 on the season with a 1.33 ERA and a host of marquee outings. Along with victories over Manteca and Oakdale, Soto shut out Division I heavyweight Turlock over three innings and topped Atwater, a Division I playoff team, and Buhach Colony, the last south section team to win a D-I title.

Like his pitches, Soto’s emotions are controlled. He’s never too high or too low – a complementary trait for a rising star pitching in a program always in playoff contention.

“It never changes – very businesslike, very quiet,” Thomson said of Soto’s demeanor on and off the diamond. “He doesn’t say a lot unless he’s asked. If you saw him today, you wouldn’t know if he was scheduled to throw a bullpen or a semifinal in the playoffs.

“I like that for a pitcher. I think because he’s in command of himself in all times he has control of what he’s doing. Sometimes when we get emotional, we have a tendency to lose our composure and poise.

“Leo does a good job of keeping his emotions under control and focusing on the task at hand.”

Soto doesn’t have the physical makeup or velocity of some of the other big names. In a league of fire-ballers and free-swingers, the 5-foot-7, 145-pounder is what many baseball enthusiasts would call a “thumber.” He has great command of all three of his pitches – fastball, changeup and curve – and knows how to play one off the other.

Just when you think you’ve timed his 75 mph fastball, he’ll slip you a changeup or pull the string on his curve. He’s a card dealer, pure and simple, tricky and smooth, stoic and in control.

The numbers don’t lie. He’s allowed just 42 hits and 14 walks in 58 innings.

“He was solid at the freshman and sophomore levels, but you never know (how things will go) when you make that jump and it is a jump,” Thomson said. “But the one thing, especially if young players and parents are wondering what makes a kid successful, it’s the ability to change speeds and command more than just one pitch.

“He throws three pitches for a strike and works both sides of the plate.”

If Soto delivers and Sierra produces with runners inw scoring position, the Timberwolves and Vista del Lago will play a winner-take-all third game around 7 p.m. The winner will advance to the one-game final on Monday.

Thomson hasn’t penciled in a starter for the if-necessary third game. Instead, they’ve developed contingency plans based on how Soto performs in the opener. Sierra’s eligible arms include Kyle Oden, Jacob Gallagher, Dakota Conners and closer Ryan Vasquez.

“We’ve been resilient. I’m confident that we will play well (today),” Thomson said. “When we lost to Oakdale this year, which was a tough loss for us, the next day in class they could hardly wait to play the next game. They learn from their mistakes, but they also have a short-term memory where they won’t dwell on the past.”