There was a moment during the CIF Southern Section Division 3 semifinal on Tuesday at Bohl Diamond at Blair Field when the Millikan Rams could clearly see how their season might end.
In the top of the sixth inning, Hart had the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position with one out when a bloop shot was sent into shallow left field.
“Once it left the bat I was looking for (left fielder Tyler Bermundo) to get there,” Millikan coach Ron Keester said. “In my mind that ball is down, and than all of a sudden I saw their guy stop and try to get back to the bag.”
The reason the runners had to retreat is because Millikan shortstop Daniel Murillo ran into left field to make the awkward reaching catch over his shoulder on a dead sprint.
“Going though my head were all of the scenarios and everything that could possibly happen,” Murillo said. “I was just trying not to do too much and have fun. We practice (that play) every day so I knew there was a chance. I was just blank brain and made the play.”
Murillo kept his composure and turned around to see the Hart baserunner well off the bag, so he threw the ball to second base for the double play to end the inning.
“I thought it was going into left field, I thought there was no way (Murillo) was going to get there,” Millikan pitcher Myles Patton said. “It was magical. That’s the only way I could describe it.”
The magic continued when Murillo came in to strike out the last two batters of the day and secure the 2-1 victory that sends the Rams back to a CIF championship for the first time in two decades.
“That’s what makes baseball players baseball players— It’s about coming up in big spots, take a deep breath and just control the situation,” Murillo said. “We came in with strong momentum and we stayed focused to get the job done. We had little hiccups here and there but we got past them and did our thing.”
Once again Millikan ace Myles Patton was incredible on the mound with 12 strikeouts in 6+ innings of work. The junior lefty scattered four hits while throwing 70 off is 90 pitches for strikes.
“I just felt really focused on my pitches and hitting my spots with my offspeed to keep them off balance,” Patton said. “I was really confident in everybody behind me so I can put the ball in the strike zone and let them hit it.”
The issued walk was Patton’s first in three playoff starts, and he’s racked up 31 strikeouts in 20 postseason innings. He struck out the side in the first and third inning to set the tone.
“He was amazing and he was himself,” Keester said of Patton. “Today we got the key hits we haven’t gotten in the past. That was huge, and then Myles on the mound, that’s a really good formula for us.”
Millikan put a runner on base in every inning except the sixth, but couldn’t push a run across until after Hart took the lead in the fourth inning. Patton said it’s frustrating when that happens, but he and his team weren’t deterred.
“Early in the season when we got behind we kind of got discouraged and gave up,” Patton said. “In this game we were behind and I feel like nobody in the dugout felt like it wasn’t over. Everybody here knew that we have great hitters and we could get back into this game in a couple pitches. We just stayed confident in ourselves and put it all together really well.”
Millikan tied the game in the bottom of the fourth when third baseman Sam DeCarlo kept the inning alive with a two-out single to right center field. He moved into scoring position when Tyler Bermundo was hit by a pitch, and then catcher Troy Harding hit the first pitch he was into left field to score DeCarlo and tie the game 1-1.
Another two-out rally in the fifth inning gave Millikan the lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Second baseman Bilal Ali led off by reaching on a swinging bunt to the right side. He was cut down at second on an attempted bunt by Dean Ormonde, but the first baseman reached safely on the fielder’s choice. Ormonde moved to second on Murillo’s fly ball single to center field that also ended the day for Hart starter Jacob Villar.
After Hart reliever Massimo Vega got Patton to fly out, Gabe Ceja came to the plate with one thing on his mind.
“I was looking for a fastball to hit and he gave me a fastball so I just took it to drive,” he said.
Ceja did exactly that and his clean single into left field was enough to bring in Ormonde from second base for the lead.
“It felt amazing because I’ve been struggling a little bit in the postseason,” Ceja added. “That was a big spot.”
“That’s the way we’ve played all year so we were just hoping to get those two key hits,” Keester said of stranding nine runners. “Fortunately it was (Gabe) Ceja and Troy (Harding) who came up big and we took advantage of that. (Troy) has been so good for us… If we don’t score there the next couple innings you’re thinking, ‘Are we ever going to score?’ To come back that quick with two outs and nobody on was huge.”
Hart put the lead runner on base in the seventh inning to chase Patton, but Harding threw him out on the first pitch from Murillo. Hart had stolen four bases on four attempts before that play. Murillo then struck out the next two batters to set off the celebration.
The cheers from the crowd after the run-scoring plays and Murillo’s heroics was key to the Rams maintaining its momentum in a hotly contested game.
“The roar of the crowd is what they’ve been waiting for for 15 months,” Keester said. “It was a great way to finish it.”
Millikan will play Arlington on Friday or Saturday in the CIF championship. Time and location is yet to be determined.
This semifinal had parallel story lines going all game as these two quality teams traded chances to score. In the top of the first inning, Patton struck out the first two batters he faced on seven pitches. Hart catcher Matt Quintanar singled up the middle and stole second with two ours, but Patton struck out the side to end the threat.
Millikan also put a runner in scoring position in the first inning after Bilal Ali led of with a single and Ormonde reached on a bunt. Hart got out of the jam with a double play and a groundout.
Patton worked quickly through the top of the second inning with a pair of fly outs and a strikeout.
Millikan then put another leadoff runner on in the bottom of the second inning when Ceja drew a walk, but Hart used another double play to kill the rally.
Patton struck out the side in the third inning. Of his first 37 pitches, 29 of them were for strikes.
The Rams had another great scoring opportunity in the third inning when Harding reached on an error and center fielder Anthony Godfrey drew a walk. Ali’s sacrifice bunt moved them over, but Harding was cut down at the plate on a fielder’s choice by third baseman Tyler Vannix.
Hart finally broke through in the top of the fourth inning when Malachi Soqui drew a two-out walk and pinch runner Hunter Pohl stole second base. Vic Pico drove him in with a single to center field on a 1-2 count. It was the first time this playoffs that the Rams trailed, but it didn’t last long.
Millikan used its first two-out rally of its own to tie it up in the bottom of the fourth, and then Patton struck out two more in the top of the fifth as part of clean inning.
The Rams kept their foot on the gas to take the lead in the fifth inning thanks to another two-out RBI from Ceja to score Ormonde.
Hart put three runners on base in the final two innings before Patton and Murillo shut the door.