There’s no way to overvalue or underappreciate what winning a Los Angeles City Section baseball championship meant to Verdugo Hills High.
Baseball is one boys’ varsity sport where this small school (an estimated student population of 1,300 in 2017-18) can take on other Division I teams without derisive smirks or catcalls. But the Dons could never call themselves City champions in baseball — until now.
Verdugo Hills was trailing Carson High 2-1 in the seventh inning and down to its last out in regulation of the Division I title game before tying the score on a single by Matt Gokey, then later scored two runs in the ninth to pull out a 4-2 victory at Dodger Stadium on June 2.
The win ended years of frustration and disappointment that had shrouded the Tujunga campus.
“I definitely feel it is a breakthrough,” Coach Angel Espindola said afterward. “This is what we want to continue here. We don’t want it to be ‘that one year where they lucked out’’; we want be a team to be reckoned with.”
Espindola could honestly appreciate the moment. In high school he had played on the 1999 Poly team that reached the City Division I final against Chatsworth High, losing 17-7.
“The kicker was, I scored the go-ahead run in the fourth. But then we had a rain delay,” Espindola said. “After that the wheels came off and we were ‘mercy-ruled’ in the sixth. Going from a high to the ultimate low.
“I tell [the players] things change quickly, and to not let the game spin out of control. Early in the year we had those situations and could not come through. We felt what is was like to not come out on top. But they knew this game was in their grasp, and they were ready for it.”
But did it have to go extra innings? Couldn’t fate just give the Dons that one elongated shining moment, a smoothly played, everything-breaks-right coming out party that could be replayed on an endless loop for weddings, christenings and banquets?
Of course not. For the Dons (23-13), seeded sixth in the playoff bracket, this achievement had to be earned through guts and glory, with a dash of temerity.
Despite the fact that Verdugo Hills outhit Carson 11-to-5, the Dons nearly wasted a tremendous effort by their standout junior right-hander Nick Rodriguez — who gave up just four hits in first eight innings — with a couple of shaky defensive plays early.
Carson (25-11), the top seed, took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first on a two-out triple by Lorenzo Roman, followed by a RBI single by Erik Herrera.
Verdugo Hills tied the game in the third on smart base-running by Taylor McCubbin, who scored on a fielder’s choice grounder by Charlie Rocca. But Carson retook the lead in the bottom of the fourth, in part when centerfielder Dakota Gray dropped a fly ball that enabled the tie-breaking run to cross the plate.
And the way Colts starter Ja’Craron Bellinger was getting outs when he needed to against the Dons, that 2-1 lead might stand up.
But the players said they never lost faith — in part from having beaten Carson, 5-4, in eight innings back on April 28.
Bellinger was given the chance to complete the win for Carson. But the Dons managed to put runners on first and third with two out and Rocca — who led the City with 14 home runs — coming to the plate. The Colts decided to walk Rocca intentionally and take their chances with Gokey. He worked the count full, then delivered his dramatic game-tying hit.
“They made the mistake last game,” Rocca said. “They walked me and Gokey hit a home run. And Matt came up clutch again.”
“I was looking for something I could drive. I knew I at least had to get it out of the infield, and pick up my pitcher,” Gokey said. “Rodriguez threw an amazing game. He kept their batters off-balance and let our defense work behind him. You’re not going to overpower people at this level so you have to let people make plays behind you and pick each other up.”
Gray was able to redeem his earlier miscue by opening the ninth with a bunt single against Herrera, now pitching after spending most of the game playing third base. Rocca walked, and Gokey flew out to center, with Gray tagging up and going to third.
Then came the game’s pivotal play. Herrera bounced a wild pitch past catcher Juan Camarena. Gray took off and slid across home plate headfirst, without a throw.
“I had a clear view,” Gray said. “I knew I was going the minute I saw the ball bounce.”
Espindola moved Kyle Edwards from third base to pitcher and try to save the win for Rodriguez. Carson didn’t go quietly, managing to load the bases with two out. But Edwards then got Lorenzo Roman to hit a fly ball to center. And there was no way Gray was going to drop this one.
Not something this historical.
“This has been a dream for us,” Gray said. “Many of us have been together since T-ball. This means the world to us.”
“It’s been a roller-coaster, and this is our final stop,” Rocca said. “We had a lot of fun on this roller-coaster.”