OAKDALE — It was just a few weeks ago that Braydon Stephens was batting leadoff, but a mid-season slump sent him to the No. 9 slot and provided him with a challenge.
"I liked hitting leadoff, but I wasn't getting on and I wasn't helping the offense," the junior shortstop said. "We're all here wanting to win, and that means doing what it takes."
Stephens reacted to the lineup move by taking extra cuts during batting practice, trying to regain his tight swing.
The work paid off Tuesday, as he delivered a key hit as Oakdale beat Manteca 4-1 in a battle featuring the Valley Oak League's top two teams.
Oakdale (18-6, 12-1), No. 3 in The Bee's Stanislaus District rankings, began the day two games ahead of Manteca and Sonora. Now it's a two-team race for the title between two of the region's fiercest rivals.
Sonora (15-7, 10-3) remains two games back, but the Wildcats get the benefit of facing Oakdale twice next week and they control their destiny.
Manteca (14-6, 9-4) can't win a title, but is still in position for one of three playoff spots. Oakdale clinched one of those berths Tuesday, and Sonora can secure the second by beating Weston Ranch on Thursday — Sonora won 10-0 Tuesday.
"We just need to keep winning," Oakdale coach Hondo Arpoika said. "We're thinking about Manteca on Thursday before we think of anything else."
The two pitchers were going on short rest — both threw last Thursday, games pushed back by the rain — and didn't enjoy their normal week's rest.
Oakdale's Brennon Williams (5-1, 1.,12 ERA) and Manteca's Matt Burrows (3-5, 2.69) were a bit wilder than normal, working in and out of trouble for much of the game.
Manteca stranded 10 runners, often putting them in scoring position with less than two out.
That's what made Stephens' hit such a key stroke, providing some cushion.
After literally stealing a run in the first — Tanner Combs stole home as a teammate was in a rundown between first and second — Stephens singled to center field with one out in the third.
Matt Butler then belted a double off the right-field fence to score Stephens,and Butler scored on a groundout for a 3-0 lead. If Stephens fails to reach base, that RBI groundout ends the inning.
"I'm pretty fast, so if I get on, it's like a second leadoff hitter," Stephens said.
He struggled through a 4-for-26 funk, but has scored seven runs and driven in four in the last five games. His defense also is part of the reason Oakdale has won 12 consecutive league games.
"I didn't get mad about being moved to No. 9, it just made me want to work that much harder," Stephens said.
Burrows did a good job against one of the district's top offenses, but he got little offensive support. Manteca mounted scoring threats in each of the first five innings, yet could produce just one run.
It had runners on first and second with one out in the fifth, down 3-1, but a strikeout and groundout killed that.
The opportunities ended there, with Williams facing the minimum six batters in the final two innings. Oakdale wrapped up its win with a double play.
"Burrows studded up today, just like Brennon," Arpoika said. "They usually both pitch on Tuesdays, but with the rain last week, they got pushed back."
Burrows had nine strikeouts and did a good job keeping his team close, but Williams was able to provide a few key pitches that helped secure the win.
"We like to throw more first-pitch strikes, but Brennon was able to come back with the strike when he needed to," Oakdale catcher Joey Machado said.
"His ball was moving around, but it kept them from sitting on his fastball. He's had a few games, one in the San Jose tournament and against Turlock, where he's had to battle like today."
Bee staff writer Richard T. Estrada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.