Rancho scored two runs in the bottom of the sixth to capture a 3-2 come-from-behind victory over Spanish Springs in the first-round state tournament tilt at the College of Southern Nevada’s Lied Field.
Leading 2-1 through five innings, Spanish Springs coach Ben Hofmann made a pitching change, bringing in Jake Bray to replace Tanner Oates, who had thrown five effective innings. It did not prove to be Bray’s day.
Rancho’s P.J. Matha drew a leadoff walk in the sixth from Bray. It looked like Bray had regained his composure when he bounced back to strike out Eric Holdren. That was not the case. In an effort to pick off Matha at first base, Bray tossed the ball down the right-field line and Matha raced to third.
Pinch hitter Manny Llamas followed and was also issued a walk. A Bray wild pitch allowed Matha to score the tying run and pinch runner Austin Blake to cruise to second. Rancho catcher Gabe Chavira then came up with the biggest hit of the day, a go-ahead RBI single to left field.
Blake came plateward for the winning run and Spanish Springs was retired in order in the top of the seventh, icing the tournament triumph for Rancho, the Sunrise Region champion.
So did Hofmann second guess his pitching change?
“Absolutely not. If we can get the ball to Jake, with a lead, I really like our chances,” the Cougars’ coach said. “He couldn’t command his fastball. That was probably the difference.”
Spanish Springs led 2-1 through five innings largely because of Oates stellar work on the hill. The Cougars senior worked five strong innings, giving up just one unearned run and scattering five Rams hits. He struck out four and walked two.
“It was all about mixing it up,” Oates said of his success. “We talked before the game and they’re a very good hitting team. We didn’t want to go all off-speed stuff but we wanted to mix it up.”
The strategy worked.
“Oates kept us off balance with his off-speed stuff and then they went to Bray, who kind of comes right after you, like we’re used to seeing more of here in the South,” Rancho coach Tom Pletsch said. “That kind of played into our hands.”
For much of the day it looked like the baseball gods might be smiling on Spanish Springs. In the bottom of the fourth, Rancho loaded the bases on two Spanish Springs errors and a walk, but Oates induced a two-out line out to left field to nix the threat.
“We dodged some bullets early,” Hofmann said. “They had the bases loaded and we got out of it. What it comes down to is you can’t make five errors in a championship-type game and expect to win. You can hope to win, but you can’t expect to win.”
The magic continued for Spanish Springs in the fifth, Rancho got a leadoff double and infield single to start the inning. Next, Rams cleanup hitter Scott Koenen hit a bouncing ball back up the middle that Cougars second baseman Kendall Murphy made a running snag of behind the base. He flipped it out of his glove to Bray, the Cougars shortstop, who was covering second. Bray caught the circus flip and spun nearly 360 degrees to fire the ball toward first base for a double play.
But the play was not done. Rancho’s Zak Qualls rounded third base too wide. He was caught in a rundown and Spanish Springs had itself an unorthodox triple play. That emotional sequence got the Cougars out of the fifth unscathed and still leading, 2-1.
“That was a Top 10 play of the year at any level, high school, college, pros,” Oates said. “I’ve never seen a play like that. It wasn’t just the double play but then we got the third out. If you’re not excited after that, you’re crazy.”
Baserunning snafus hurt Rancho (32-5) all day. In addition to the aforementioned sequence, the Rams had a runner picked off third base and saw a runner doubled off second when he took off on a routine infield fly ball.
“It was like last year, when we played Galena and lost on the first day of state,” Pletsch said. “We made three baserunning blunders and three errors. I kind of felt like, ‘here we go again.’”
Spanish Springs got off to a hot start, scoring both of its runs in the top of the first inning. Bray started the game with a leadoff single. After Oates struck out, Chase Kittilsen hit a high-bouncing chopper that went for a double. Murphy stepped in next and hit a ball to third base that turned into an error and saw Bray and Kittilsen charge across the plate.
Unfortunately for the North champs, that was all the scoring it could muster Thursday. Spanish Springs managed only three hits through the final six innings of work. Garek Tauchen laced a one-out single in the second but was picked off. In the fifth, Tauchen doubled with one out but was stranded. And in the sixth, after Spanish Springs had just recorded the triple play, Oates roped a leadoff double, but could not advance after two infield popups and a strikeout.
Rancho’s Eric Holdren was the biggest reason the Spanish Springs offense stalled. The Rams senior right-hander limited the Cougars to just the five hits in a 10-strikeout, one-walk gem. He did not give up an earned run.
“Their pitcher buckled down and got us off balance,” Oates. “You have to give the credit to the pitcher.” Hofmann echoed those sentiments.
“He was good. He is a solid arm,” the SSHS first-year coach said. “We knew that going in. He had a good slider and a good fastball. We couldn’t make any adjustments.”
Spanish Springs (26-10) has a tough road to travel if it is to bounce back and capture the school’s first state title in baseball. The Cougars will have to win four games in a span of just over 24 hours to do so.
Spanish Springs will meet Green Valley a 9-7 loser to Bishop Gorman, in a losers’ bracket game today at noon.