Mark Lopez picked up his 11th win of the year (Andy Morales/AZPreps365.com)
Only champions earn the right to be defined by one game and, even then, a champion who steps away from the bright lights realizes the magnitude and the importance of every moment that led up to that final celebration. Miss a practice, lose a game here, make an error there, and that moment of glory may have been lost. Forever.
No. 4 Canyon del Oro (21-9) and No. 1 Nogales (27-4) had a handful of those season-changing moments over the course of the last three months or so and it all came together for both teams Wednesday night in the semifinal round of the 4A playoffs played at Hi Corbett Stadium, home of the University of Arizona Wildcats.
The Apaches held on for a 5-3 win over the Dorados in a game full of all the emotions one could hope for (and not hope for) in a playoff game. Errors, timely hits, stranded runners, huge strikeouts and double plays. This game had it all and the win by Nogales guaranteed a spot in the 4A championship game against No. 2 Salpointe on Saturday night.
The Dorados stranded a runner at third in the first inning and the Apaches stranded a runner of their own in the second. Mark Lopez (11-0) had five strikeouts in the first three innings and Mason Myhre (4-2) had seven. Batters weren’t given many chances under those circumstances. Even a one-out triple from Ralph Padilla was wiped out by two strikeouts.
Something had to give and Nogales took advantage of an error in the bottom of the fourth to give Lopez a 1-0 lead. It was a play that changed the course of the game, with the Dorados playing from behind and the Apaches riding the arm of Lopez.
Lopez was one of three pitchers chosen from the coaches of the Kino Region to be the best at their position. Myhre was another and Manny Villa of Salpointe was the third. One had a feeling that the first pitcher to get a lead would be in control and that pitcher turned out to be Lopez.
The Apaches, like Lopez, were in control of the Kino Region and the 4A Conference as a whole until Salpointe got in the way of a perfect 12-0 record by scoring nine runs in the seventh to beat the Apaches 13-10. Walden Grove knocked Nogales off a week later and teams realized Nogales was beatable.
“I told my team I would be there for them and I knew they would be there for me,” Lopez said on the midseason losses. “We were able to work it out just like tonight. We worked for each other.”
The two losses and a loss to Catalina Foothills a few days later were easy to overcome because the pile of wins leading up to the minor skid removed a lot of stress from the program, just like the one-run lead over Canyon del Oro.
“Pitching ahead like that removed a lot of stress from my shoulders,” Lopez added. “And then the four runs we got the next inning helped us out also.”
As Lopez mentioned, the Apaches plated four more runs thanks to a walk from Gera Lopez, a hit-by-pitch issued to Ricky Maytorena and error to load the bases with one out. A strikeout almost put an end to the scoring threat but Kevin Jimenez drew a full-count walk to give Nogales a 2-0 lead and then Marcel Bachelier stepped in and connected on a double to score three more runs.
As mentioned before, a 5-0 lead was not safe, especially with the Dorados in the other dugout.
If one was to mistakenly define the Dorados by that one error in the loss to Nogales, they would be missing one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history completed by the Dorados against No. 12 Coconino in the quarterfinal round. Down 5-1, the Dorados scored five runs in the bottom of the seventh to stay alive. That was only one of several moments this year that more accurately defines the Dorados.
“We had a successful year for sure,” Tyler Porter said. “I was thinking about that comeback against Coconino tonight. I knew we could do it again but we came up short. That happens in baseball.”
Porter was chosen the Region Player of the Year by the coaches and his belief in his team’s ability to comeback once more almost came to fruition in the sixth when the Dorados scored three more runs.
Kiko Romero got the inning off with a triple and Derrick Calvillo singled him in one out later. Angel Ochoa drew a two-out walk and Brian Romero roped a triple to score two more runs. Romero was stranded at third on another strikeout but the Dorados had cut the lead down to 5-3.
This rally came one inning after the Dorados were able to load the bases against Lopez but a double play erased that threat.
Cesar Dominguez closed out the game for the Apaches and he collected two more strikeouts in the top of the seventh to preserve the victory. In all, Lopez and Dominguez combined for 10 strikeouts and Myhre, Alec Ivanoff and Diego Truesdall collected 12 for the Dorados.
Nogales beat Canyon del Oro three times this year so it’s obvious the best team ultimately won but that in no way detracts from the success the team had this year. The Dorados have eight state championships to their name, with the last coming in 2015, while Nogales is credited with nine, with the last coming in 1981.
Salpointe has been to two state championship games, taking back-to-back runner-up finishes in 1995 and 1996. The Lancers finished in third place in 2015.
The championship game has been moved to Hi Corbett. One would expect a few thousand fans showing up that night. It was estimated the Nogales faithful comprised at least 80% of the 1,000 or so fans in attendance Wednesday night.