LODI — Manteca High’s baseball team arrived earlier than it normally would for most games and this one ended up starting an hour later than its scheduled 6 o’clock start.
The players waited and waited and waited in anticipation of their Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championship game with Vista del Lago, all the while sapped by the Memorial Day heat. They lacked energy and polish during pre-game warm-ups, while Vista was sharp and rarin’ to go. Two earlier games played at Tony Zupo Field went long, forcing the late start for the nightcap.
“We’re used to having that sense of urgency as soon as we get there,” Manteca coach Neil MacDannald said. “We like to get off the van and get it going.”
It took 4 ½ innings for the Buffaloes to get it going.
Down 6-0 at one point, they mounted an incredible comeback capped by Alex Jorgensen’s walk-off single in the bottom of the seventh. They won 7-6 and got to clutch a section banner for baseball for the first time in school history.
“I thought our pre-game was alright, but we could have done a better job out the gate,” starting pitcher Jacob Corn said. “I don’t know how we pulled it off.”
They did, somehow, someway. And it took the whole herd to get it done.
Things looked bleak early.
Vista del Lago started out with a bang in the form of Michael Majeski’s majestic solo blast over the left-field wall in the top of the first inning. Much had been made of the Eagles’ struggles with left-handed aces, but on this night they were able to square it up against a bona-fide southpaw in the Oregon-bound Corn.
What ensued was baffling. Two infield errors led to unearned runs in the second inning, and just like that Vista was ahead 3-0. Majeski struck again in the third with a leadoff double and was driven home by Nick Schumacher’s chopper to left.
Vista 4, Manteca 0.
“Our team has played catch well all season long, save for a couple of games and even this one,” MacDannald said. “To be honest this was probably our worst game of catch all year.”
Then in the fifth, Andrew Schantz — the Eagles’ hero in last Wednesday’s 2-0 semifinal win over Sierra and starting pitcher on Monday — cracked a run-scoring triple and later plated another on a wild pitch.
Vista 6, Manteca 0.
Game over, right?
Somehow, someway, these resilient Buffaloes overcame it all.
“The biggest thing about our team is that we always pick each other up,” Joe Menzel said. “When we needed big-time plays we made them in the end. It’s about what you do when you need to get the job done and we got the job done in big moments.”
Menzel knows all about big moments. He quarterbacked the school’s football team that captured the section’s Division III banner in the fall. Many of the Buffaloes, from players to coaches, are two-sport section champs. MacDannald, the football team’s offensive coordinator since 2001, is now part of section championship teams.
It was Menzel who sparked Manteca’s five-run fifth inning with a leadoff walk after working the count full.
“I just wanted to do whatever I could do to get on base,” Menzel said. “We needed base runners at that moment and I didn’t want to do too much.”
Michael Garibay also drew a full-count walk. Meanwhile, Schantz’s pitch count was closing in on the century mark. He was in full control through four innings (three hits, four strikeouts, one walk), but at some point soon Vista del Lago’s pitching depth was going to be tested.
Dominic Pisano drove in the Buffaloes’ first two runs with a single up the middle. Corn — who redeemed himself at the plate with a 3-for-3 effort — knocked in Buddy Reeder, his longtime batterymate. Two more runs were plated after Lucas Vaughn reached on an error.
Majeski, pitching in relief, cleaned up the mess as Vista del Lago survived the rally still ahead, 6-5.
At this point, though, it was the Buffaloes’ game to win.
Vaughn, a pitching ace for most teams, handcuffed the Eagles in a rare relief role. In 2 2/3 innings he struck out four and didn’t give up a hit. Vaughn ends the year with the best record in the state at 12-0.
Pisano would come through again in the sixth with the tying RBI single, and though the Buffaloes left the bases loaded the momentum was clearly theirs.
More heroes emerged in the dramatic final half inning.
Brandon Landwehr, hitting just .238 going into the game, drilled a single to left to lead it off. Ezequiel Diaz moved him to second on a sacrifice bunt, and Landwehr tagged up and scooted to third on Menzel’s fly ball out in foul territory in right.
That set up Jorgensen, the team’s No. 9 batter who dramatically punctuated his torrid postseason run.
“Personally, I didn’t really lose faith but I didn’t want to force anything on them,” MacDannald said. “All season long this group has been about having a different guy come through. It was just a matter of time that someone was going to break through.”
They all did.
“This is a determined group of kids that had their mind set on getting those numbers up in the gym and getting that VOL title,” MacDannald said. “Once they earned that their new goal was on the blue banner.
“It’s just a testament of the kids in the dugout and what they’re willing to do to get things done. I feel blessed to be able to have led them.”