By Erik Markus
La Habra Journal
Runs were hard to come by for the Sonora Raiders baseball team, but they were able to edge out Yucaipa 2-1 and win the Anaheim Lions Tournament Championship last Wednesday.
The Raiders (7-8) stumbled out of the gate in the 2016 season, but the Sonora Baseball team is finding its groove at a nice time. After a 1-2 start in the Freeway League, the Raiders have rattled off five in a row and are gelling as a team.
With the Raiders enjoying spring break, they have been able to bring up some of their freshman, as well as simply focus on baseball.
“We are relaxed. We’re not stressed, we’re not nervous, there are no nerves at all, we’re just out here playing our game, having fun, being confident,” Matt Schmidt said.
“We’re playing as a team. Guys on the bench, the dugout atmosphere is incredible,” Raiders Head Coach Pat Tellers said.
The Raiders were led against Yucaipa by Willie Castellanos who pitched six scoreless for his first victory of the season.
“To have the poise to go out there and throw six inning for us, you couldn’t ask for much more,” Tellers said.
“I’ve been in this situation before, but it is always mind boggling, but it was fun,” Castellanos said.
The Thunderbirds (10-6) were led by hard throwing Cody Stevens who kept the Raiders offense quiet all night.
“We knew they were a really good team, and they have really good arms on the mound, and that was their best guy,” Tellers said. “We knew he was going to pound the zone. We had to make adjustments at the plate.”
Unable to make much hard contact, the Raiders relied on small ball, where they have had success all season.
In the bottom of the third inning, the Raiders led off the inning with two singles, by Max Wilkinson and Dylan Villalobos. After two straight fielder’s choices, the Raiders had runners on the corners with Villalobos on third and two outs.
Mehial Nazaroff, broke for second early in an attempt to gain attention long enough for Villalobos to score from third. The play worked to perfection, as Nazaroff’s run down lasted long enough for Villalobos to beat the throw home. The third inning ended shortly after that, with Jason Clayton striking out with Nazaroff at second.
The Raiders followed a similar script leading 1-0 in the bottom of the sixth, when Nazaroff stole home with the Thunderbirds throwing to second on the double steal attempt.
The Raiders benefitted from the two run lead, because the Thunderbirds came up in the seventh fighting.
The Raiders wanted to make an effort to limit Villalobos’ innings in order to give his arm a rest. However after a week of playing shortstop, the Raiders turned to him in the seventh.
Villalobos got off to a rocky start in his first inning of the week, as Yucaipa’s cleanup hitter, Tyler Van Marter ripped a triple down the left field line to lead off the inning. Tristan Macias then followed with a walk putting runners on the corners. Macias was replaced by a pinch runner who stole second easily as the throw to second sailed over the center fielder’s head. The throwing error led to Van Marter scoring from third and put a runner at second.
That was the end of the Thunderbirds chances however, as Villalobos struck the next two batters out to close things down for the Raiders.
The Raiders were led in this game by Castellanos who was able to keep the Yucaipa batters off balance for six innings.
“As long as he was around the plate, I thought that he would be pretty effective,” Tellers said.
Throughout the tournament, the Raiders leaned on Matt Schmidt who won the Tournament MVP hitting 13-20, and for his pitching performances during the week.
“It just seemed like I could do no wrong out there on the field,” Schmidt said.
“He went 13-17 for the tournament already, he’s got to be our MVP no matter what happens today,” Tellers said. “Anything he touched, the ball was going through, he had some RBI’s, sacrifice bunts.”
In addition, the Raiders were able to consistently give him the ball and trust he would take care of business.
“He didn’t give up any runs on the mound, he was just fantastic, he played second base, shortstop for us too, the guy had a great tournament for us.
Schmidt’s dominance on the mound will pay big dividends for the Raiders in multiple ways. Schmidt will be trusted with the ball as the Raiders ace moving forward, and take pressure off of Villalobos.
“If we can limit the innings right now, maybe he (Villalobos) becomes the closer instead of the starter,” Tellers said. “We would love to keep him at short, it really sures up the defense.”
If the Raiders rotation goes as planned, they may be looking at Schmidt, and Derek Cull leading the rotation, with Steven Perez, Castellanos and Villalobos able to compete for any remaining spots in the rotation.