Flying under the hashtag “#RedemptionSeason,” the title-starved Christian Brothers baseball team has eliminated two of the Valley Oak League’s best in reigning Division III champion Manteca and Sierra.
Now, the top-seeded Falcons, 0-5 in section finals, will take aim at the VOL’s resident king – No. 2 Oakdale – in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III final on Monday at Zupo Field in Lodi.
First pitch is 6 p.m.
Oakdale (25-6) has won 12 of its last 14 games, and defeated Yuba City in a semifinal series last week at the McAuliffe Memorial Ballparks in Sacramento.
Christian Brothers (28-2) has been to five section finals, but seeks its first banner. The Falcons have advanced to the Division I final in 1988; the Division II final in 2002, 2004 and 2014; and lost to Manteca in the Division III final last spring, 9-6.
“They’re a classy program. If you watch their kids interact with one another and watch their coaches, everything they do is classy,” Oakdale coach Nate Gregory said. “They have a plan, and their kids are competitors. They give everything they have on the field. They’ve beaten a lot of good teams, so I think their track record speaks for itself. They’ll be tough.”
The championship game is a rematch of the Division III football final in December. Led by outfielder Cullen Bearden, the Mustangs throttled Christian Brothers, 51-14, en route to a historic postseason. Oakdale parlayed that section title into CIF Northern California and State Bowl victories, the latter a 47-0 drubbing of Bishop’s School of La Jolla.
Gregory can see similarities in the programs, baseball and football, at each school.
“It’s been awhile since football season. Those are two different animals, but the same type of idea exists,” he said. “I believe our kids will leave it on the field, and their kids will do the same. They’re impressive to watch. That’s going to be a tough mountain to climb.”
Especially if Tanner Cunha takes the ball.
The left-hander is 9-2 with a 1.58 ERA and an 11-strikeout perfect game on his resume. He nearly no-hit the Timberwolves in their playoff opener. Gregory has come to terms with one truth: If the Mustangs are to win their seventh section title – and first at the Division III level – sooner or later, they’ll have to go through Cunha.
“He’s a special kid,” Gregory said. “He attacks the hitters well.”
Oakdale will counter with a committee.
Gregory is prepared to use his entire stable of pitchers, beginning with either Vito Rodin or Blake Whiting, both all-Valley Oak League first-team selections. Rodin and Whiting have won nine games apiece and sport ERAs below 1.00. Rodin pitches to contact, while Whiting leads the team with 102 strikeouts in 63 innings.
Both seniors have ascended in the playoffs, he said, and earned the right to start Monday’s final. So who gets the ball?
“Everybody,” Gregory said with a truthful laugh. “We’re inning by inning; that’s how we’ll go. We’ve got four or five guys ready to go. If we run into trouble, we’ll switch until we make them miss.”
After all, it’s the Oakdale way.
Regardless of Monday’s outcome, Gregory has enjoyed watching the development of a 23-man roster. The Mustangs’ journey to the section championship game has been, by definition, by-committee.
First baseman Bryce Kirk is the VOL’s Most Valuable Player after batting .329 with 10 doubles and four home runs. Infielders Nick Moore (team-high 37 hits and 31 runs) and Michael Juarez (.367, 10 stolen bases) joined him on the first team, along with Bearden (.412 average, team-high 34 RBI), a shaggy-haired outfielder.
Everyone plays a role.
“They’re all good men and they all play for each other,” said Gregory, who watched his seniors graduate on Friday evening. “They’re invested in each other; they’re playing for more than themselves.”