One of the surefire marks of a truly great sports team is their ability to respond to and overcome adversity. Tuesday afternoon’s Mission League matchup between the Notre Dame-Sherman Oaks Knights and the Bishop Alemany Warriors, two of the very best teams in the entire state, took turns showing great resolve in response to difficult stretches. As the back-and-forth game went down to the wire, it was home team Alemany that had the last opportunity to match adversity with pluck — and succeed in dramatic fashion. Facing a 4-3 deficit in the bottom of the 7th inning, the Warriors generated an impressive rally that culminated in a walk-off hit to give them the 5-4 victory.
rnAlemany Strikes First
Much of the afternoon saw Notre Dame and Alemany engaged in a pitcher’s duel. Through four innings, the Warriors couldn’t get a single baserunner in scoring position as Notre Dame senior starter Chris Collins allowed only four hits and induced several Alemany ground balls and harmless pop ups. Warrior senior starter Kyle Merkel’s stuff was just as dominant; though the Alemany ace struggled to find the strike zone in the first inning and walked two batters, he later found his stride, to the tune of three strikeouts and just three allowed hits.
Alemany’s only real scare through the first five innings came in the top of the third inning, when a sharp single into left field by Notre Dame senior third baseman Jake Hirabayashi (who had two hits on the day) looked like it might score senior first baseman Mike Wilson (also two hits) from second base. Senior left fielder Alex McKenna, however, had other plans, and threw a direct-line bullet to home to catch Wilson out at the plate by a mile.
In the bottom of the fifth inning, Collins’ arm finally showed signs of fatigue, and Alemany capitalized in a big way. After senior right fielder Christopher Ligot walked and then advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by senior catcher Rece Reagan, and senior utility man Josh Carlin came in off the bench to smack a double into the gap in right-center field. It was the game’s first extra base hit, and resulted in the contest’s first run, as Ligot came around from second to break the scoreless tie.
Carlin was brought home later in the inning on a sharp single into right field by senior center fielder Ruben Cardenas (who had game-highs of three hits and two RBI) that chased Collins from the game. Although Collins’ outing was finished, the Warrior rally wasn’t, as McKenna, who reached base after being hit by a pitch, scored on a wild pitch by junior reliever Ryan Morris.
rnThe Knights Battle Back
The three-run Alemany rally had the home crowd buzzing with joy. But the good feelings didn’t last long. In the sixth inning, it was the Knights’ turn to chase the starter from the game, as consecutive hits by Wilson and Hirabayashi forced Alemany manager Randy Thompson to replace Merkel with junior Brandon Lewis (who started at first base).
Lewis would proceed to hit senior center fielder Jordan Myrow with a pitch to load the bases, but, after inducing a slow ground ball by senior Logan Schwartz, it appeared that the Warriors were about to get themselves out of the jam. The ball was botched, however, by senior shortstop Nick Nerud, which allowed Wilson to score the Knights’ first run. The error proved to be costly, as sophomore shortstop Hunter Greene stepped to the plate and ripped a single into right field that scored two. The Knights added one more run when Schwartz scored on a fielder’s choice grounder by junior catcher Will Evans. “We kind of self-destructed in the sixth inning,” lamented Thompson. “We gave them five, six outs. If we play catch, we get out of that inning with no worse than one run [allowed].”
Alemany’s lapse resulted in their three-run lead quickly becoming a 4-3 deficit with only two innings left to play.
rnThe Warriors’ Last Stand
According to Thompson, his players, though disappointed, were neither discouraged by losing their lead, nor daunted by the task of coming back against a supremely talented Notre Dame squad. “I told them at that point, it was a gut check time,” recalls Thompson. “[The key to coming back] was not letting anything get to us,” added Cardenas. “[We had a] bad sixth inning, but we didn’t let it get to us.”
Though the Warriors failed to answer the Knights’ tremendous rally in the home half of the sixth, Lewis shook off the disappointment of the previous inning and shut down the side in the top of the seventh (a stellar display that included two strikeouts). The stage was set for what everyone watching the game suspected it would become: a hard-fought battle that would be decided in the seventh and final frame.
McKenna led the decisive inning off by walloping a double to the gap in left center field (for his second hit and third time on base). “Late in the game like that, you’re just looking for a good pitch to hit,” explained McKenna. “He [Morris] hung a curveball, and I was able to drive it into the left center field gap. And then my guys, they picked me up, man.”
Indeed they did; in the ensuing at-bat, Cardenas drilled another single off of Greene, who was called in to save the lead he had played such a prominent role in seizing with his bat. Lewis then hit a single to score McKenna and tie the game. After junior Will Picketts walked to load the bases, senior third baseman Christian Goretti stepped to the plate looking to complete the comeback. After falling behind in the count 0-2, Goretti smacked a single up the middle to bring in Cardenas and bring the Alemany crowd to its feet.
“On the first two pitches, I was timing him down,” recalls Goretti. “[I] went down 0-2, and then I saw another fastball, and just put a good swing on the bat.” “Our guys behind me did a great job of taking good swings,” added McKenna. “[When Lewis] came back in the seventh inning and shut the door with three straight outs...he gave us the opportunity to go back in there and do what we do as hitters. We just came in, were confident in ourselves, and we got the job done.”
No one was prouder of Alemany’s ability to get the job done than Thompson. “In that seventh inning, we saw a gut check, and our guys had some great at-bats,” beamed the Warrior manager. “To score two runs off that type of pitching … and those balls were hit hard. They were great at-bats.”
rnUp Next: The Rematch
Fans who enjoyed watching these two Mission League heavyweights duke it out on Tuesday won’t have to wait long to see it again, as Alemany and Notre Dame will square off again this Friday, this time in Sherman Oaks. And while the Warriors’ exhilarating walk-off win is cause for celebration, they’re very aware they can’t afford to be cocky about Friday’s rematch. “Notre Dame’s a quality team,” said Thompson. “[They’re] well coached, and they’ve got quality players. They’re going to be up near the top all year, and if we wan to finish at the top of the Mission League, we have to beat Notre Dame.” “They’re a force to be reckoned with in the Mission League for sure,” added McKenna. “Today, we were able to do the things we needed to do to get the W, but Friday’s going to be the same story. It’s going to be another tough game. We just gotta go out there and play our game, and hopefully, we’ll be successful.”
And hopefully, fans attending Friday’s game will be treated to another gem like the one they witnessed on Tuesday.