Baseball: St. Paul's amazing comeback falls just short in last game
The conclusion of St. Paul's 11-10 loss to Monroe in the first round of the 2018 2A/1A state playoffs is the kind of thing movie script writers would look at briefly, then throw away because it was too far-fetched for audiences to believe.
After a spectacular regular season in which they finished second in the conference standings and in the top 10 of the OSAA rankings, the Bucks entered their May 23 road game against the Dragons looking to bring home the first playoff win in program history.
"We had made the playoffs once or twice in the mid-'80s, but had never won a playoff game," SPHS coach Julio Vela said. "We talked about it at the beginning of the game, 'Let's do something we've never done before.'"
With two-time conference pitcher of the year Justin Herberger on the mound, a host of all-conference teammates backing him up and a four-game streak of shutouts entering the game, the Bucks were eager to steal one away from the Dragons.
But Monroe had other thoughts.
The Dragons stunned the Bucks to the tune of four runs in the bottom of the first inning, then added another in the second and two more in the third. Little by little, Monroe distanced itself from St. Paul as the game went on.
"It wasn't like they were just beating him all over the yard," Vela said. "They were just hitting it in the right spots at the right time."
Herberger exited the game after giving up 14 hits and nine runs in five innings, the most combined for him in any game this season. The Dragons added two more runs off Campbell Smith in the sixth and St. Paul entered the final frame staring up at an improbable 11-0 deficit.
For a lot of teams, that could be the last straw. Pack up your bags and call it a season. But the Bucks weren't ready to hang up their bats. Not yet.
"That's the thing about our team, we don't break," Vela said. "We might not be performing. We might be angry (and) frustrated, but we're never broken."
The Bucks had an oft-repeated phrase they used when they were holding big leads against opponents this season: It's most difficult to concentrate when you're up by double digits. Despite being on the other side of the coin against Monroe, the adage was just as apt.
Holden Smith and Jaidyn Jackson recorded the first two outs in the seventh, leading Vela to insert Spencer Curtis, one of his seniors, into the lineup. Curtis responded with a single up the middle.
Then Zach Brentano followed, doubling to centerfield to bring Curtis home and avoid the shutout.
Top of the line-up and Bradey Weise was hit by a pitch to put runners on first and second, and all of a sudden, St. Paul's dugout begins to buzz. Monroe's concentration looked as if it was beginning to falter.
"They took it to heart, got in there and kind of refused to be the last out," Vela said. "They started hitting as if it were the last inning of the season."
T.J. Crawford singled up the left side to bring home Brentano. Herberger singled to load the bases and Campbell Smith followed with a double to bring in two more runs and make it 11-4. Another single, this time by Rawley Koch, and another two RBIs, this time by Holden Smith.
Monroe changed pitchers, but it didn't matter. A single by Jackson brought Curtis back to the plate and he drove in two more to make it 11-8. A Monroe balk brought in Jackson, and Brentano singled to score Curtis for the second time in the inning and make it 11-10.
But that's as far as the rally would go. The Dragons induced Weise into a grounder up the middle for the final out. Monroe breathed a heavy sigh of relief and St. Paul's incredible rally fell one run short.
"I was proud of them. That was a valiant effort," Vela said. "We went all the way to the precipice and it showed a great deal of their character. If anyone had any question of the type of character or type of group that they are, that should be dispelled."
Brentano led the team on offense, going 4-for-4 with a double, two RBIs and a run scored. Curtis went 2-for-2 with two RBIs and two runs scored — all in the seventh inning.
Campbell Smith and Koch both finished 2-for-4, and all but one player who saw a plate appearance ended up with a run scored.
It was not the ending anyone in the dugout envisioned, but it's a memory that will live on within the program for years and propel next year's team even further. When St. Paul brought its varsity program back in 2013, they knew there would be moments of disappointment. Every team except the state champs finishes the season with a loss.
This year's team fully expected to be playing into the quarterfinals, or semifinals or to challenge for a state title. The sting of the Monroe loss wasn't that the rally had fallen short, it's that they wouldn't be able to challenge for that title.
"To not have that and be disappointed? That's awesome," said Vela. "That's great progress."
Eight, nine years ago, we thought that there would be disappointment. I don't think we would be disappointed.