It was as gentle a dog pile as you’re going to see.
With Mariposa High School relief pitcher Morgan Hughes barely able to put weight on his injured left knee, his teammates did their best to gently lower the southpaw to the ground before the celebration ensued Monday afternoon.
Hughes earned his way into the heart of it, coming up huge in the Grizzlies’ 11-7 victory over Ripon Christian in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI championship game at Tony Zupo Field. The senior had two hits and drove in four runs, including a bases-clearing double in the second. He then came on to record the final out, getting a called third strike to leave the bases loaded with the tying run at the plate.
More impressively, Hughes did it on basically one leg. He suffered an MCL strain after a collision at the plate in Mariposa’s semifinal series with Bradshaw Christian. Hughes was forced to sit out the final game of the series. Sporting a bulky brace on his left knee, he had no intention of missing the final game of his high school career.
“That position I got put in there is every kid’s dream,” Hughes said. “To go and be able to finish the game for us. Of course, it was a little tighter than we wanted to, but we really are a clutch team. We’ve been a clutch team all year, and to be able to pull it out like that means the world to me.
“That was the first time I’ve ever sat out since my freshman year, and that was something I couldn’t have for the section game. It’s something I wasn’t willing to take, so I decided to go see a physical therapist, practice and push through it.”
The Grizzlies (18-7) are glad he did.
Hughes opened the scoring in the second inning as Mariposa threatened to turn the game into a laugher. With two aboard, Hughes flared a single that landed just inside the left-field line. It was the start of a nine-run inning.
Joseph Freitas added a run-scoring single, Quinn Horvath singled in two, and Hughes capped the rally with a three-run double. Mariposa sent 13 batters to the plate, scoring nine runs on just four timely hits.
“That’s been a big part of our success this season,” Grizzlies coach Justin Kleinsmith said. “Those big two-out RBI base knocks. I felt like our guys had some really good two-strike approaches, and we took advantage of the opportunities we had.”
The nine runs looked like more than enough run support for Mariposa ace Jake Williams. The senior allowed more than five runs in a game just once this season, and only four of those were earned.
Williams cruised through the first four innings, allowing one hit while striking out six. He had a chance to end it early when a wild pitch gave Mariposa a 10-0 lead and a chance to mercy-rule the Knights (23-6) going to the bottom of the fifth.
The 95-degree heat and Ripon Christian’s fortitude finally got to Williams in the fifth. Three straight one-out singles extended the game for the Knights as Connor McGovern singled in a run. Travis Vander Molen brought in a second run with a fielder’s choice. Williams managed to limit the damage, leaving the bases loaded with an inning-ending pop-up.
“It was tough,” Williams said. “I could feel myself burning up out there. The heat is one thing, but then the walks start to take their toll on you mentally as well. I knew my team had my back. I was just trying to throw a strike and get us out of that inning.”
Getting out of the jam proved bigger than Williams could have anticipated as Ripon Christian went down fighting in the seventh.
Down 11-2, the Knights managed to get the tying run to the plate. Two errors and five walks aided the rally. A Mike Fisher run-scoring single trimmed the lead to 11-6, and John De Visser drew a walk to force home another.
Travis Zuidervaart drew a two-out walk to load the bases, and Kleinsmith turned to Hughes out of the bullpen.
“I had my two senior starting pitchers, and I knew both would be ready to go,” Kleinsmith said. “He lobbied me for the lefty-lefty matchup. He went out on one leg and came through.”
The victory gave Mariposa its fifth section championship in the 2015-16 school year and is the Grizzlies’ fifth overall in baseball.