With the game in doubt, Gregori High senior Matt Dallas stepped to the plate in the sixth inning with a chance to put out Lodi’s flame.
Instead, he left the field with his helmet raised in respect for outfielder Ben Prentiss, whose sliding catch robbed the reigning Modesto Metro Conference MVP of a run-scoring hit, perhaps extra bases, too.
Dallas tipped his cap, knowing this game, unlike their last two meetings, would go the distance.
So often this season, the wins have come fast and easy for the barnstorming Jaguars. That won’t be the case in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I South playoffs, where a team twice beaten nearly turned the tables on the MMC champions.
On Wednesday, the seventh-seeded Flames extended No. 2 Gregori in a 3-1 loss at the University of the Pacific’s Klein Family Field.
Jimmy McClenaghan had two hits, designated hitter Matt Rhodes ignited a two-run second inning with a double, and Julian Favela struck out the side in the top of the seventh as the Jaguars beat the Flames for a third time.
The first two meetings weren’t quite so dramatic. Gregori collected 8-1 and 4-0 victories over Lodi en route to a 26-0 start and top-10 state ranking.
“It came all the way down to the end,” Gregori coach Jim Davis said. “We knew Lodi would come to play. Their kids wanted it just as bad as our kids wanted it. It was decided on the field. You have tip your cap to them. It’s sad someone’s season ended tonight, but we’re happy it wasn’t ours.”
Gregori (27-1) advances to the double-elimination portion of the tournament for the first time in program history, continuing a theme. During this magical season, the Jaguars also won their first outright league title and celebrated a program-record nine college signees.
“At the end of the day, this is furthest we’ve been as a program. Everything we do now is a first,” Davis said. “We move onto double elimination against one of the traditional powerhouses in our section. Our kids are excited for the challenge, but it is still a baseball. We still got to go between the lines and play it.”
Gregori will face third-seeded St. Mary’s on Monday at 4 p.m. The Rams bounced No. 6 Turlock in Wednesday’s opener, 15-4. Lodi (16-13) hoped to sustain the Tri-City Athletic League’s dominance of Stanislaus District teams.
With long blonde locks pouring out of his hat, starter Jacob Jordan pitched effectively, his confidence buoyed by an early lead. Alejandro Estrada’s high chopper to third base plated Alejandro Avila, who led off the second inning with a single.
“He did phenomenal,” Favela said of his counterpart on the mound. “He held it to a close game.”
The Jaguars answered in the bottom half, showcasing the type of explosive offense that carried the team to 26 consecutive victories to start the season. Brandon Green opened the frame with a walk and scored on Rhodes’ double to the base of the left-field wall.
Moments later, Tyler Vandemark made it 2-1 with a double of his own.
Favela allowed one run on four hits in his playoff debut, but the Enochs High transfer and his teammates lacked precision early. Gregori dropped a fly ball, fumbled a potential double play, sailed a pick-off attempt into center field, and walked three and plunked another.
“I had to take a deep breath, relax and play the game that I know and love,” Favela said. “I had to take a step back and realize that I’m here to throw strikes. If they hit it, they hit it.”
In the seventh, engulfed by the spotlight and closing in on his pitch count, Favela was unhittable. He struck out the side swinging, including Jordan to end the game, leaving the Gregori relievers in the bullpen.
Favela fanned 12, offsetting his control issues early.
“I love coming into moments that are close,” he said of the seventh. “I love pitching when the bases are loaded or there are runners on second and third. It’s the best feeling ever.”