MIDDLETOWN – By many factors, St. Helena and Middletown were very evenly matched baseball teams this season.
Both finished with 10-4 records in the North Central League I, ending the season tied for second place. The rivals even split their two head-to-head matchups during league play, both of which were fairly even contests.
So, it only seemed right that the two drew each other as first-round opponents Tuesday in the North Coast Section Division 4 playoffs, giving them an opportunity to find out once and for all who was the mightier foe.
But even when it was all said and done, the margins couldn’t have been closer.
The sixth-seeded Mustangs eked out a 3-2 win over No. 11 St. Helena to end the Saints’ season, illustrating once again how evenly matched these two teams were.
When St. Helena head coach Darrell Quirici found out Saturday that his team would be facing the Mustangs (16-8) a third time, he was initially disappointed. He wanted the opportunity to face a team the Saints normally wouldn’t see. But that disappointment gave way to the realization that his team had a legitimate shot to win a playoff game for the first time since 2013.
“I got thinking about it and thought ‘No, this is a good thing for us because we know we’re right there with these guys’ and obviously, this proves that,” Quirici said. “They beat us two out of three this year, but we’re capable of beating that team and we just didn’t do it today.”
Middletown managed only two hits, both in the first inning, but used deft pitching and fielding to keep the Saints (14-11) frustrated on the offensive end. St. Helena outhit the home team 9-2 but also committed two costly first-inning errors that helped give the hosts the lead.
St. Helena appeared to set the tone early by opening the contest with three straight singles, the last of which came off the bat of sophomore Stacy Nelson and gave them a 1-0 lead. They extended it to 2-0 a batter later on a Jack Adkins fielder’s choice and looked poised to completely seize control.
But Middletown’s first inning was just better than the Saints. A leadoff triple got the Mustangs fired up and a dropped pop fly scored the runner a batter later to make it 2-1. The Mustangs proceeded to load the bases with none out and scored twice more in the first to take a 3-2 lead into the second.
“We had that miscommunication – I don’t know what else to call it – on that blooper in the first inning and if that doesn’t happen, it’s a different ballgame,” Quirici said.
From there, things settled down and the outs began to pile up quickly for each team. Nelson allowed just three baserunners the rest of the way. He pitched a complete game with six strikeouts, four walks, two hits and three runs (one earned) but got little help from his offense, at least in terms of scoring.
The Saints absolutely had their chances to tie or even take the lead over the next six innings, but came up empty on every opportunity. Their best window came in the sixth when they loaded the bases with two outs, but Middletown starter Jimmy Rockwell got out of the jam with a fly out.
Offensively, junior Caleb Jeske went 3-for-3 with a run scored, Adkins went 2-for-3 with an RBI, Nelson was 1-for-4 with an RBI, junior Jonathan Gamble was 1-for-4 with a run scored, and JV call-up Brent Isdahl went 2-for-3 in his first varsity game.
St. Helena put the potential game-tying run on base in the seventh inning. But once again Middletown escaped the situation, turning a 4-6-3 double play to end the game. The Mustangs celebrated on the field as if they had won league as the Middletown faithful roared.
“You’ve got to tip your hat to them because they made do with two hits and got the job done,” Quirici said. “It’s not how many you get, but when you get them, and we just needed a hit. We had guys in scoring position five of the seven innings and just couldn’t do it.”
Coming as close as they did to pulling off the comeback only made the loss that much tougher for Quirici and the Saints to swallow.
“These hurt, more than a regular-season game, because of the work and the intensity and it’s so final,” Quirici said. “There’s no tomorrow.”
Well, not for this squad as a whole. The Saints brought up a host of JV players for the postseason who will likely play a large role for the team next season, with seven seniors on this year’s roster.
Even with that breadth of experience, it took St. Helena a while to play up to its potential. But the Saints answered any concerns the last couple weeks about the season as they rattled off a four straight games of double-digit run, all in winning efforts, to close out the regular season.
“We came a long way,” Quirici said. “We really grew and I credit them with these last five games – other than today; we didn’t reach double digits. But we had been raking the ball and doing a really good job with it and cutting down on the strikeouts. The arrow is pointing up for St. Helena baseball. … There’s a good group of kids coming back with a lot of experience now and these JV kids, some of them are going to be an integral part of our team next year, so it’s something to look forward to.”