Sports

Just like football: Hilmar romps, will meet CC in D-V final

SUN-STAR PHOTO BY JAMES BURNS
Hilmar third baseman A.J. Miranda fields a grounder and throws to first in time to get Patterson's Frankie Sanchez in the first inning of Tuesday's 11-1 win. The victory vaults Hilmar into its first-ever section final.
SUN-STAR PHOTO BY JAMES BURNS Hilmar third baseman A.J. Miranda fields a grounder and throws to first in time to get Patterson's Frankie Sanchez in the first inning of Tuesday's 11-1 win. The victory vaults Hilmar into its first-ever section final. Merced Sun-Star

LODI -- A.J. Miranda climbed the dugout steps, stopped short of the field and threw his arm over teammate Austin Amaral.

There were still three outs left to record in this playoff rout, but the hulking slugger couldn't fight the feeling any longer.

He had to hear it out loud.

"We're going to the section finals," Miranda squawked into Amaral's ear, a tone equal parts joy and disbelief.

"We're going to the section finals ... in two sports."

And just like in football, this never-say-uncle Hilmar baseball team (13-15) will be the decided underdog.

Hilmar whipped Patterson for the second time in four days, 11-1, sweeping its best-of-three Division V semifinal series on Tuesday to clinch the program's first-ever finals berth.

Waiting in Monday's winner-take-all game: Western Athletic Conference-rival Central Catholic (24-6), the very team Hilmar surprised in the football section final six months ago.

"I'm in shock," Hilmar's first-year coach Justin Steelman said. "It's been a season full of ups and downs. We got hot at the right time.

"With the football team's win, we had a lot of eyes on us, a lot of people looking at us to win the blue banner, too.

"Central Catholic was the one team we wanted to meet if we got there."

Hilmar booked its trip thanks to an electric offense and lights-out pitching from Sam Ramirez.

The senior right-hander gave up two hits in four solid innings, and the only run Patterson scored came on his throwing error in the fourth inning.

Miranda (2 for 3) gave him plenty of run support, highlighting a five-hit, eight-run inning with a leadoff home run and a two-run single.

All nine Hilmar batters reached base in the inning.

Will Wescott (2 for 4, double) chipped in a two-run single and Carl Jameson (2 for 4, 3 RBI) had a two-run double off the base of the center-field wall.

But it all started with Miranda's 340-foot home run.

The senior third baseman didn't appear to get all of the pitch, but the ball rode a wind current over the short wall in left field.

"I didn't think it was going to get out. I was thinking it was going to be a double," Miranda said.

"But when it finally got out, and the guys are patting you on the helmet, something ignited in our dugout. And we didn't stop."

Hilmar flexed its muscle throughout the series, torching Patterson's pitching staff for 26 runs in two games.

Hilmar has won five of its last six games, including four straight, outscoring its opponents 48-15 during that stretch.

"We didn't mesh well in the beginning of the year, but these last four games we've finally come together," Steelman said. "It's been fun."

For the second time in nearly six months, Hilmar is the longshot to bring home a major section title.

Central Catholic, the WAC champion, has won nine straight blue banners, including all six Division V crowns.

But Hilmar may have the emotional edge.

Steelman's boys beat CC in their last meeting on April 30, rallying for a 7-6 victory with back-to-back home runs in the seventh inning.

"We have tremendous confidence going into that game now," said Miranda, one of the heroes from their last league meeting.

"We've seen all their pitchers. We know what they can do and we know what our bats can do."

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

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