The May 16 game between San Fernando and Cleveland did much to magnify the beauty and the cruelty that is the City Section Division I baseball playoffs.
It is the kind of one-and-done playoff game you want to see — just not in the first round. Both teams were capable of eventually winding up in the final at Dodger Stadium. But someone’s dreams were going to be snuffed out early.
Still, they had to play this one here and now on Tuesday. San Fernando, the 11th seed, visiting Cleveland, the sixth seed, with both teams needing their “A” games to have any hope of advancing to the quarterfinals.
Over the course of three hours, the game played out like a drama that was anything but mellow. Every pitch was cheered and scorned, any possible slight or perceived lack of sportsmanship drew warnings and threats of ejection and/or game forfeiture by the umpires. The seating areas were overflowing with fans from both schools, all living and dying with each thrown ball.
On this day Cleveland edged San Fernando, 7-6, in a game that had a little bit of everything, and left everyone watching it emotionally spent. Nick Martin’s two-out RBI single in the fifth turned out to be the decisive blow. But there was nothing sure about the victory until Cleveland’s Greg Conklin struck out Steven Villagran in the seventh for the final out.
“I’m a little in shock that we lost,” San Fernando Coach Armando Gomez said afterward. “I really thought we would win this one.”
Cleveland Coach Sid Lopez was happy to be able to exhale, and see his team survive.
“This could have been a championship game,” said Lopez, perhaps thinking back to the City title game these teams played at Dodger Stadium in 2013. “They’re a very good team. You hate to see anybody lose a game like this. But I’m glad we got on top.”
Cleveland and San Fernando had met back on April 1 at San Fernando High in a tournament game. The Cavaliers broke out to a 4-0 lead, only to see the Tigers come back to tie the score, and go on to win in extra innings, 9-4. “A tough game for us,” Lopez said. “They fight very hard.”
And, darned if history didn’t almost repeat itself.
The Cavaliers (21-11) appeared set to make the game a runaway, busting loose for six runs in the bottom of the first, five of them charged against ineffective Tigers starter Louie Vargas, who never got a handle on the strike zone.
“I’m disappointed in that kid,” Gomez said. “If you’re a ‘gamer,’ you get it done. And he didn’t get it done
But once Villagran — who began the game at third base but was forced into relief pitching — figured out the strike zone, he pretty much locked up the Cavaliers’ bats over the next three innings, giving the Tigers a chance to recover.
The rally began in the third as San Fernando’s Albert Robles drove a 1-1 fastball over the left field wall for a three-run homer, and drove Cleveland starter Max Yourist from the game. Reliever Bryan Suppan got out of the third without any further damage, but allowed a run-scoring single by Robles in the fourth.
San Fernando (19-10) came all the way back in the fifth. Conklin relieved Suppan after the latter gave up a single to Anthony Meza and walked Andres Sandoval. Like everyone who took the mound this day, Conklin initially couldn’t throw strikes. He walked his first hitter, Brandon Cabrera, to load the bases. Up next was Luis Onofre, whose fielder’s choice grounder plated pinch runner Johnny Ralda. And after Alonzo Castellanos walked to reload the bases, Villagran executed a squeeze bunt with two strikes, bringing home pinch runner Jonathan Cuellar.
But Villagran, who at one point retired 13 consecutive Cleveland hitters, weakened in the bottom of the fifth. With two out, he issued consecutive walks to Conklin and Ben Schecter. Martin was the next batter up, got a pitch he could handle, and drove it safely into right field, scoring Conklin.
“I was looking for a ball inside because he had been pitching me outside all game,” said Martin, who had struck out in his previous at-bat against Villagran. “I was looking for a ball to drive, and I got my pitch.”
Conklin had one more jam to escape in the sixth, working out of a two-on, one-out situation. But he managed to retire the Tigers in order in the seventh — the only time it happened in the game.
“We had a lot of character on this team,” Gomez said afterward. “That’s why I told them to keep their heads up. We battled and battled. Steven pitched his butt off.”
But it’s Cleveland who’s still playing. The Cavaliers will visit Venice, the third seed, on Friday, May 19.
“When you get a win like this, there’s a lot of emotion,” Lopez said. “And there’s carryover. You felt whoever won this game, momentum is on their side.”