MERCED — The Merced College defense flirted with disaster for much of Saturday afternoon.
The Blue Devils managed to sidestep a handful of errors through eight innings, but it finally caught up with them in the ninth.
With the bases loaded and two out, Fresno City’s Ryne Dean drilled a 3-2 ground ball to first baseman Garret Boothe, who knocked down the ball but couldn’t hold it. Dean beat the toss to first, allowing two runs to score.
The sequence proved to be the difference in a 6-4 Rams victory at Blue Devil Field and assured Fresno City of a spot in the playoffs for the 27th consecutive season. It also cost Merced a place in the postseason for the first time in 10 years.
The teams finish tied for second place in the Central Valley Conference at 17-7, but Fresno won the season series 3-1.
“We’re still a second-place team, so we have a chance,” Merced coach Chris Pedretti said Saturday. “We had an opportunity to take care of it today, but just too many walks and errors to overcome. We just gave them too many free bases.”
Despite five walks and five errors, the Blue Devils (21-15) built a 4-2 lead through six innings.
Mercedscored two runs each in the first and fifth innings behind run-scoring singles by Motoki Kawashima, Jimbo Pernetti, Joseph Salmeri and a Pernetti sacrifice fly.
The Blue Devils were seven outs away from victory when Preston Scott gave Fresno City (22-14) life. Daniel Gardner worked a two-out walk and Scott crushed a 2-0 pitch over the left-field fence to tie the score 4-4.
Merced threatened to answer right back in the bottom half of the inning, using a hit batter and a Kawashima single to put two on with one out. With the season possibly on the line, Rams coach Ron Scott wasted no time going to closer James Brager. The sophomore got a big strikeout and breathed a sigh of relief as Pernetti flied out to the wall in center.
“That was a tough spot to come in, but that’s why he’s one of the best relief pitchers in Northern California,” Scott said. “It was a close ballgame with momentum swings back and forth. Fortunately, the last couple were ours.”
Brager’s escape helped set the stage for the ninth. Ryan Soares led off with a pinch-hit single. Merced closer Hiroki Taniguchi looked like he might get out of trouble after a sacrifice bunt and a groundout moved Soares to third with two down.
Gardner worked another two-out walk and Pedretti opted to intentionally walk Scott to load the bases. Taniguchi got the ground ball he was looking for, but it wasn’t fielded cleanly. Soares scored easily and Gardner, who never slowed down on the play, scored a big insurance run from second.
“We put Taniguchi in a tough spot by walking Scott, but (Dean) just seemed like a better matchup,” Pedretti said. “We left him no margin for error, but he got the ground ball he needed. We just couldn’t make the play. And you have to credit their aggressiveness to score that second run.
“That completely changed how we approached our half of the ninth.”
Merced didn’t go away quietly. Walks by Shota Nagatomi and Kawashima put the tying runs on with one out and Merced’s top two run producers due up.
But Brager responded again. He got Salmeri to fly out to right and caught Pernetti looking to end the game.
“Typical Fresno-Merced baseball game,” Scott said. “It’s not always pretty, but it’s great JC baseball. Those guys are like chocolate on white pants. They just don’t go away.
“It’s a shame someone had to lose, but with the playoffs on the line, I’m glad we came out on top.”
Track and field
The Merced College throwers turned in a big performance at the Central Valley Conference Championships in Fresno.
Christina Lotulelei won the shot put and discus titles and finished second in the javelin for the women. Ivander Gonzalez won the hammer throw and Emmett Wirtz captured the shot put title for the men.
Sun-Star staff writer Sean Lynch can be reached at (209) 385-2476 or firstname.lastname@example.org.