LODI — If Monday's Oakdale-Central Catholic Division 4 Sac-Joaquin Section title game was an indication of the quality of baseball these schools will play when they become conference rivals, then realignment can't come soon enough.
Already two of the most decorated baseball programs in the Sac-Joaquin Section, the two schools met for the first time with a title at stake, and the Mustangs pushed across four runs in the sixth inning to take a 4-1 victory at Tony Zupo Field.
Realignment will pair these schools in the Valley Oak League starting with the 2014-15 school year, but fans have yearned for years to see Mustangs and Raiders clash on the field both in football and in baseball.
"I've always thought that Oakdale and Central have had a silent rivalry," said Oakdale senior Ericksen Dickens. "We never really play each other, both of us are doing well in our leagues all the time.
"I'm glad that this rivalry is starting off like this so that in the years to follow the games will have something to live up to."
Living up to the tension of this game will be difficult.
Starting pitchers Eddie Machado and Matt Palazzo locked up in a duel through five scoreless innings, with Palazzo the Raiders' senior ace getting the best of it.
Machado hadn't given up a run through 12 previous playoff innings on the Zupo mound, but Palazzo merely held the Mustangs hitless through five.
"He threw a nice six innings," said Central coach Mike Glines. "He can be very, very good and I hope we see that at the next level. He's gotten better at controlling his emotions and he threw well for us."
Palazzo was put in a position to win after Central scratched across a run in the top of the sixth. Blake Escobar was hit by a pitch, moved to second on a ground ball and scored on Chandler Bengston's two-out single to right.
That would be Machado's final pitch. Bryce Dyrda, the hard-throwing junior righty who already has committed to the University of Southern California, came on to face four hitters, fanning each.
Before Oakdale could mount a rally, it first had to dent the hit column, which Dickens did by lining a 2-2 pitch to left-center with one out.
"I was trying to make an adjustment since I didn't do well in my first two at-bats," Dickens said. "I didn't want to do too much except hit the ball hard and keep it simple. It worked out."
Dickens remained at first base as Palazzo got the second out on a fly ball, and Central Catholic was one batter away from taking a 1-0 lead into the seventh.
But the next five Mustangs reached safely. Nik Garza walked ahead of Dyrda's game-tying single to left-center, and Colt Parshall was hit by a pitch to load the bases.
Niko Arpoika walked to force-in the go-ahead run, and pinch-hitter Austin Dickens (Ericksen's cousin) hit a ground ball to second base that was bobbled, then thrown late to first base.
Dyrda strolled home on the error, with Parshall running hard on the play from contact and scoring all the way from second base.
"You preach and you talk about two-out situations," said Oakdale coach Hondo Arpoika. "You just have to get the kids to believe, and I'm so proud of the guys. They're high-character kids that we're blessed with in our community."
The four-run rally consisted of Oakdale's only two hits of the game, bunched with two walks, a hit batsman and an error. Hardly textbook, but in the context of the game, spell-binding.
"I knew it was going to be a good ballgame," said Arpoika, coaching his final game for the Mustangs. "Our kids never quit. Ericksen broke the seal and we just kept the pressure on after that."
It was the fourth straight section crown and sixth in seven years for Oakdale, while Central Catholic's 11 section titles remains the standard.
As long as these two programs can maintain their levels of excellence, the road to future titles always will be going through one of these two teams.
"It definitely will be a rivalry," Glines said. "There's no doubt about that."
Brian VanderBeek can be reached at (209) 578-2150 or follow him on Twitter, @modestobeek