San Marcos High’s baseball team saw nothing good when it looked up at Santa Barbara’s Eddie Mathews Field on Wednesday.
It saw a three-run, infield pop-up that it couldn’t catch … and the arch-rival Dons still atop the Channel League standings after a 7-3 victory.
“Those balls went way higher than I thought they would,” Jack Holland said of his two sky-high, twisting pop flies that were dropped on the Royals’ infield. “With all that spin, they come back.”
The Dons, ranked No. 6 in the CIF-Southern Section’s Division 3, also came back from a 1-0 deficit on Wednesday to remain undefeated in league play with an 8-0 record (11-3 overall).
Holland’s first pop fly came with the bases loaded on a two-out, full-count pitch during the third inning. All three Dons ran on the pitch and all three scored, with Jordan Harris hustling all the way around from first base.
Holland said the Dons dropped a popup early in their season, prompting coach Steve Schuck to make it a point of emphasis during practice.
“Those are tough … they’re tough balls,” Schuck said. “We practice it at least once a week. We put the pitching machine at home plate and just fire them up there.
“With the trees and the sun and the way the balls come back on this field, they’re not easy.”
Holland, who reached second base on the pop-up, scored moments later on a single by Sam Russell.
Holland’s next at-bat in the fourth was a similar pop fly that was also dropped, but Nicky Fell struck out the next Don to end the threat.
Starting pitcher Cole Schoenwetter took the hard-luck loss for San Marcos (12-3, 6-2).
“I thought Cole did awesome,” coach Wes Ghan-Gibson said. “He (allowed) zero unearned runs and he did exactly what I’d hoped for. Then we gave the ball to Nicky in a tough situation, with the momentum completely on their side, and I thought he did OK.
“It was tough getting the momentum back after that. I’m proud of our kids for clawing back. But you can’t do that against a good team.”
The Royals came out swinging. Joaquin Sandoval led off the game with a hard single and scored on Fell’s RBI double to deep centerfield. A line drive single by Henry Manfredonia put runners on first and third bases. But Dons’ starting pitcher Juan Perez got two popups and a ground out to escape further damage.
Perez scattered seven hits over 4 1/3 innings to improve his win-loss record to 4-0.
“An hour before the game, we didn’t know if we had Perez,” Schuck said. “His back is still messed up. We got a massage gun and put him on it, and he just sucked it up.”
Santa Barbara extended its lead to 6-1 in the fourth on an RBI single by Oliver McGibben and a sacrifice fly by Vince Gamberdella. McGibben went 3-for-4 for the Dons while Fell led the Royals by going 2-for-4.
“Oliver is starting to get into midseason form right now,” Schuck said. “Everybody is. They’re starting to buy in a little bit more.
“They’re starting to get more comfortable. Our practices are a lot more intense. The seniors are starting to hold the young guys accountable and we’re starting to lock in.”
That was also true for their defense. Holland thwarted another Royals’ threat during the top of the third with a diving, back-handed catch of Emmitt Speake’s slicing line drive near the left-field line.
“It was huge,” Schuck said. “Our outfielders are finally starting to realize that it’s OK to leave your feet. I mean, it’s risky, but that’s the way we play it here. We play aggressive, and if you think you’ve got it, go for it.”
Holland said he went into auto-pilot and even “spaced out” when he saw the Speake launch his missile.
“It was pretty shocking … It was pretty quick adrenalin,” he said. “Usually, I come back to when the ball’s in my glove.”
San Marcos kept coming, however. Perez needed a pick-off play to get out of trouble in the fourth after singles by Aiden Johnson and Chase Hoover. The Royals finally scored a pair of runs in the fifth on an RBI single by Aidan Mandel and Johnson’s run-scoring fielder’s choice.
The Dons needed another pick-off play — this time at second base by catcher Vince Gamberdella — to squelch the rally. Gamberdella then followed McGibben’s sixth-inning triple with his second sacrifice fly of the game.
The four-run cushion was plenty for Santa Barbara reliever Erick Elizalde, who retired the last eight Royals while striking out five.
“His confidence is through the roof,” Schuck said. “Every time he goes out there, the confidence just grows and grows.
“He just found out last week that he’s going to go play with (coach Jeff) Walker at City College, and that put a little extra pep in his step. You saw it out there. He battles out there.”
San Marcos, which had won five straight games since a 1-0 loss to the Dons on April 3, will get another shot at Santa Barbara on Friday at Joe Mueller Field.
“He has a really good ball club, and we’re fortunate that we came up on the good end two times,” Schuck said of the Royals. “We’ll go back at them on Friday.”
Ghan-Gibson said pop-ups would be a point of emphasis during today’s practice at Mueller Field.
“That’s a must-win game on Friday,” he said. “We’ve got to protect our home field, compete and have fun — and understand that that’s a good team over there … and that we’re a good team.”