Maybe the St. Mary’s High baseball team should start a psychic hotline.
A dramatic, prophesied walk-off home run by junior third baseman Chris Morocco propelled the Panthers into the BSAL championship match as St. Mary’s squeaked by the Piedmont High Highlanders 5-4 in North Berkeley Thursday afternoon.
“That was just, like, the greatest thing ever!” gushed Morocco shortly after his teammates mobbed him at home plate. “A lot of my teammates came up to me and said, ‘you’re gonna hit a home run,’” he explained. “And then to go up there and do it, it’s awesome.”
The climactic roundtripper capped a four-run late-inning comeback by the Panthers (13-12), who advance to face Albany in the championship game Saturday at 1 p.m. at Washington Park in Alameda. The winner of that game will receive an automatic trip to the North Coast Section playoffs.
The Panthers emerged with the win despite a shaky outing by senior lefthander Joe Storno. St. Mary’s ace starter went the distance for the victory, but allowed four runs on eight hits.
“I had gas but no movement,” Storno explained, noting that he pitched much of the game without his curveball. “But I knew we would fight back because that’s the way it’s been all year. I knew we were going to get some runs.”
Piedmont junior righthander Nikhi Aurora, however, came out of the gate with guns blazing, deftly using a sharp curve and a liberal strike zone to punch out the first three Panther hitters – all looking – on only ten pitches.
Highlander second baseman Jay Carson then put Piedmont on top in the second inning, crushing a mammoth homerun over the bleachers in leftfield with a man on for a quick 2-0 lead.
The game briefly turned bizarre in the bottom of the second. After Panther centerfielder Chase Moore fought off a two-strike fastball to line a leadoff single to right, Storno struck a chopper to first. Highlander first sacker Pete Boyle threw to second to get the force out, but shortstop Josh Boltuch’s return throw sailed high into the fence along the first base line.
The umpires, however, ruled Storno out, claiming that Moore had slid into Boltuch and not the base. In the ensuing argument Panthers assistant coach Don Diani was ejected and forced to leave the field.
After order was restored, the Highlanders added to their cushion with single runs in the third and fifth. St. Mary’s chipped away with a single run in the fourth on a single by first baseman Peter McGuinness and a misjudged fly ball double to right by Moore.
For the second week in a row, however, Piedmont watched a promising lead slip away in the late innings to the grit and tenacity of the Panthers. Rightfielder Tom Carman led off the fifth by lashing a line drive double to the wall in right-center. Designated hitter Jeff Marshall followed by driving a booming triple to almost the exact same spot, scoring Carman.
Aurora then watched his defense fail him again, as leftfielder Marcus Johnson hit a line drive directly at his Highlander counterpart, Ryan Tovani. Tovani, however, broke in on the ball, and was unable to recover as the ball sailed over his head and to the wall for a double, scoring Marshall and cutting the deficit to 4-3. After a strikeout, Morocco singled sharply to left, plating Johnson with the tying run and chasing Aurora.
“He’s been hitting the wall in the fourth or fifth inning for three or four games now,” Humphries said of his ace. “We were hoping he could work through it, but it didn’t happen.”
For Piedmont (16-8), a journey to the postseason now rests on the hope of receiving an at-large bid.
“I’m confident that we would have a chance to get in as an at-large,” said Mike Humphries, the Highlanders head coach. “That’ll give us a new lease on life.
“It’s a tough way to lose a ballgame,” he concluded. “But you’ve got to give them credit. They never gave up.”
The teams traded fruitless rallies in the sixth inning, threatening to send the game into extra frames. With one out in the bottom of the seventh, however, Morocco stepped up and deposited a 1-0 curveball from reliever Alex Danoff over the centerfield fence for the game-winner.
“Kind of the whole season has been like that,” a jubilant Morocco said. “We just figure we’re gonna stick with it until the end.”
Andy Shimabukuro, St. Mary’s head coach, credited that never-say-die attitude for the victory.
“I just told the guys to hang in there. I knew Joe (Storno) wouldn’t let too many more come in,” Shimabukuro said. “I knew our offense would come alive after a little bit, just enough for us to win.
“Now we just have to take our chances pitching by committee on Saturday.”