The tears flowed freely as Los Banos High School baseball players embraced each other one last time.
Coach Pat Fuentes challenged his team to fight to the last out on the heels of a less-than-impressive 12-8 loss to Placer earlier Wednesday.
His team responded, putting the tying run on base in the top of the seventh inning. Unfortunately for the Tigers, it was as close as they would get Wednesday night. Los Banos left the bases loaded for the second consecutive inning, and Placer locked up its place in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championship game with an 8-5 victory at Tony Zupo Field.
“These guys are fighters. It’s what we expected from them,” Fuentes said. “I rode them a lot, and they responded. We didn’t play very well in the first game, but they put it behind them and regrouped.
Never miss a local story.
“We just couldn’t ever seem to get the big hit. I kept hoping something would fall, a bloop here or there, and it might have turned the whole game around. I’ve got to give Placer credit, though. They came to play. They did what they had to do to win two games and deserve everything they get.”
Eighth-seeded Los Banos (18-10-1) entered the day needing one win to make its first title-game appearance since 1994 after a 1-0 victory over the fourth-seeded Hillmen (20-9) on Saturday.
A repeat of silencing Placer’s bats proved tricky, however. The Hillmen didn’t go in order once in 13 innings Wednesday, recording at least two hits in each of the first nine. Placer pounded 17 hits in Game 2 to overcome a 4-1 deficit and force a decisive Game 3.
The Hillmen didn’t stop there, taking a 3-0 lead in the nightcap after two innings.
“I had trouble consistently getting ahead in the count,” Game 3 starter Chris Corral said. “They put good swings on balls when we gave them a chance. You’ve got to work hard for all three outs. The third out is always the hardest to get, and they made us pay every time we didn’t get it.”
Los Banos had numerous opportunities to answer. The Tigers mustered seven total hits in the two games Wednesday but had no shortage of men on base, thanks to a patient approach.
Los Banos stranded runners in scoring position in each of the first three innings of Game 3 before finally breaking through in the fourth. Two walks and a hit batter loaded the bases with two outs for Kevin Spencer, who benefited from a tough bounce on a hard-hit ball back up the middle to drive in two. Placer was slow getting the ball in, and an aggressive Lane Mallonee ended up scoring from first on the play to tie the score.
Placer went back on top in the fifth, but the Tigers tied the score again in the sixth on a wild pitch. The Tigers had a chance at a bigger inning but left the bases loaded. It would cost them.
An error to start the bottom of the sixth opened the door for a four-run Placer rally. Luke Knoble (3 for 4, 3B, 2 RBIs) and Jordan Wood (3 for 3, 2 RBIs) had run-scoring singles.
Los Banos threatened in the seventh but couldn’t get closer than 8-5.
“Who would have ever expected us to even be here?” Fuentes said. “It sucks that anybody has to lose at this time of year, but that’s the reality. Placer was the better team today.”
Sean Lynch: (209) 385-2476