LODI — Manteca was one pitch away from advancing to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV finals for the second time in three years.
The Buffaloes instead sustained another gut-punching, extra-inning defeat.
After evening the best-of-three semifinal series with a 13-6 nine-inning victory Tuesday afternoon, Manteca fell to Central Catholic 6-5 in heartbreaking fashion under the lights of Tony Zupo Field.
The Buffaloes were in position to put Western Athletic Conference champion away with a two-run lead, no runners on and two out in the nightcap.
Chandler Bengston’s full-count, two-run single to center forced a second extra-inning contest. Then in the bottom of the eighth, Aiden Westrope drove in Joseph Candelario from second with a high-lofting single that dropped just a few feet inside the third-base line. Both were mobbed by fellow Raiders as they celebrated their thrilling victory.
Central Catholic (24-6) won the semifinal opener 12-6 on Saturday and awaits the winner of the Oakdale-Vista del Lago series, which will be determined today.
“We fought hard all the way through the end,” Westrope said. “We’re a never-say-(die) team.
“I gotta give credit to those guys,” he later added while nodding toward the Manteca dugout. “They’re a really good team and they fought hard as well.”
It’s another disappointing end for Manteca (18-9), the Valley Oak League’s runner-up. Last year, it lost to El Dorado 2-1 in a 10-inning, opening-round setback.
Central Catholic gave the Buffaloes ample opportunities to score more runs Tuesday, issuing 19 walks and committing five errors in the 17 innings played. Manteca left 22 runners stranded, and 14 of them in the do-or-die nightcap.
The Raiders, to their credit, capitalized on their fewer opportunities and made Manteca pay in the end.
Manteca reliever Michael Garibay was cruising in the seventh having retired the first six batters he faced, including the first two in the inning. Westrope reached with an infield hit, and Brevin Van Diepen drew a five-pitch walk.
Lucas Vaughn, who threw the final three innings for the win in Game 2, replaced Garibay and walked Andrew Urrutia to load the bases. That set up Bengston’s clutch single, but Vaughn was able to escape further damage with a three-pitch strikeout.
In the eighth, Candelario led off with a single to right and advanced to second when outfielder misplayed the ball. Following two fly-ball outs, Central Catholic slugger Blake Escobar was intentionally walked to bring up Westrope, the night’s hero who went 4 for 5 with two runs plated in the rubber match.
“I thought we outplayed them,” Manteca coach Gene Ballardo said. “We battled back from that first game (on Saturday), which was a tough one and had the momentum today.
“But give (Central Catholic) credit, they responded when they had opportunities. They’re a great-hitting team, and we were on the short end today. We just couldn’t get that last out.”
Dominic Pisano stroked a two-run single that pushed Manteca ahead 4-1 in the top of the fourth. He finished 2 for 4 in Game 3.
Buddy Reeder drove in six runs on the day, including a two-RBI double that highlighted Manteca’s decisive seven-run rally in Game 2.
The Buffaloes blew a late lead in that game as well, as they were up 6-5 in the seventh. Escobar tripled and plated the equalizer on Brevin Van Diepen’s single to left.
Manteca batted around the order in the ninth, as Jacob Corn, Michael Garibay (doubled), Joe Menzel and Pisano each belted RBI hits.