If you watch the St. Helena High varsity baseball team on defense long enough you’ll see the skill.
Hard grounders fielded on an irregular hop, or plays that force infielders to move multiple steps in either direction. They’re making long throws with little time to waste, and first baseman Sammy Titus is snatching them out of the air or off the bounce in praiseworthy fashion.
No matter the sport, though, defensive miscues will always make the good plays fade from memory. On far more occasions than any sane coach would like, Saints skipper Darrell Quirici has watched his side commit one mistake. And then another. And another.
All four runs in St. Helena’s 4-2 North Central League I loss to visiting Middletown Friday were unearned. Three of them came in the fifth inning when the game was knotted at 1-1. With a runner on second base, the Saints only needed one out to end the threat. Instead, they committed three errors and the Mustangs capitalized on each one.
In Tuesday’s 3-0 loss at Cloverdale, only one of the three runs was earned. Both of the Saints’ errors occurred in the fourth inning when the Eagles plated two runs.
“Compound is exactly what happens, and that’s why I called that timeout and came out – not to talk to (starting pitcher) Dylan (Martin) but to talk to the infield and say, ‘This is the situation we’ve been getting in all year. Things go bad, and we need somebody to step up, make the play and stop the bleeding,’” Quirici said on Friday. “Next thing, we have a ground ball that’s mishandled at third and the run scores.
“‘Compound’ is an excellent word. Our problems compound themselves rather than somebody stepping up and making the play that stops the bleeding and gets us out of situations.”
Still, despite five total errors Friday, the Saints (10-11 overall, 5-7 NCL I) had their opportunities to upset the league-contending Mustangs.
In the bottom of the fifth, the home team put its first two batters, Casey Walker (1 for 3, run) and Javier Garcia (1 for 2) on, and then loaded the bases with one out and the team’s top hitter, Caleb Jeske (1 for 3, RBI, run, two steals), at the plate.
He reached on a fielder’s choice, scoring Walker, but the Mustangs brought in reliever Luke Holt, who overpowered the Saints’ batters over the final 2 1/3 innings, striking out six of the 10 he faced.
With two out in the bottom of the seventh, Ryan Rockwood, Stephen Collins and Jeske drew three consecutive walks to turn the pressure up on Holt with a chance to tie or even win the game. Austin Cia went up to bat and worked his way to a full count, but struck out looking to end the contest.
“Obviously that guy that they brought in (Holt) brought it,” Quirici said. “We weren’t up to the task early on. He helped us with some walks there at the end and we had a chance, but we looked at strike three there, which you can’t do in that situation.”
On Tuesday, the Saints put multiple runners on-base in three separate innings. In the third and in the seventh – when they loaded the bases – they made it as far as third but were unable to bring anyone home.
Thanks to a relatively consistent pitching staff, the offense has been the biggest determinant in the outcomes. The Saints are 6-3 in games they score four or more runs; they’re 4-8 when they don’t.
The team is batting an underwhelming .221, and Niko Lopez (.308), Jeske (.283), Walker (.267) and Garcia (.255) are the only players with 55 or more plate appearances that are batting .250 or higher.
“(The offense is) nowhere near where we need to be able to compete,” Quirici said. “We’ve got to be able to put more runs on the board and do a better job and get our team average up. We are not anywhere close to where I thought we would be, and that’s been the Achilles (heel) for us, especially when we’re giving up these unearned runs. It just becomes that much harder. We’re not capable of coming back from a medium or large deficit with the way our offense is now.”
If there is one bright spot, it’s the starting pitching.
Lopez (8-4) has been steady throughout the season, with a 1.387 ERA in 70 2/3 innings. He’s struck out 56 batters compared to 27 walks, and is throwing 63 percent of his pitches for strikes. Maybe most impressive is his efficiency, throwing 13 or less pitches in 41 innings this year.
Ethan Hougie (2-2) has been a welcome addition to the rotation and, at times, has been dominant in his five NCL I starts. He’s striking out 29 percent of batters faced and is averaging 10.4 strikeouts per regulation game. Take away a rocky outing at Kelseyville last week – against a team that hasn’t lost a league game since 2015 – and his 3.111 ERA is well under 2.000.
If the Saints want to be a part of the North Coast Section playoff conversation, the obvious answer is that the arms must remain steady, the bats need to come alive, and the defense has to limit the mistakes in the final two games.
Both are against opponents below them in the league standings, but Tuesday’s loss proved that doesn’t necessarily matter.
If they win both they’ll be 12-11 overall with a 7-7 mark in league, and that may not be enough in a crowded Division 5.
The margin for error is razor thin, and one loss could extinguish any hopes for this senior class to be the first since 2010-11 to reach the playoffs in football, basketball and baseball in the same year.