By Annika Bereny
There was a perfectly symmetrical scoreboard this afternoon for the Walnut Creek Crawdads 8-4 win against the Sonoma Stompers. That is, except for one crucial inning. An improbable, but spectacular nonetheless, inside-the-park little league home run led the Dads to a victory today in their final home game of the season.
In a must-win game for the Walnut Crawdads hoping to end the season at the top of the CCL North, their motivation came from runs scored by the Sonoma Stompers. Many have often opined about the Crawdads’ ability to execute a comeback but never was that more obvious than today. In a funny game of mathematics, Walnut Creek’s scoring seemed to mirror that of a list of square numbers. If the Stompers went up by a run, so would the Crawdads, but in the fifth inning when Sonoma scored two runs, the Crawdads retaliated with four of their own.
Austin Berggren (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) started the game strong with a quick strikeout and a putout. A Sonoma fan in the crowd remarked that ‘those Stompers boys don’t wake up until there are two outs on the board.’ That sentiment proved true more than once on Saturday. With those two outs in the inning, Sonoma’s Michael Bell (California Polytechnic University- San Luis Obispo) reached first and a throw past first on a grounder to shortstop Matt King (University of Texas- San Antonio) landed Bell on third. A slashed grounder just passed third baseman Max Farfan (in the Transfer Portal) to bring Bell home and put the Stompers on the board first.
With Hawk Hill (Undecided), a RHP with a 5.48 ERA, starting on the mound for Sonoma, Walnut Creek was eager to even the score. Leadoff hitter Ryan Ellis hit a bomb into right center field and even Stompers center fielder Jag Burden (California) knew it was gone. In just a few pitches, the Crawdads had tied the game.
Two outs into the bottom of the second, Catcher Nico Button (California) singled past Sonoma’s third baseman. Ryder Helfrick (University of Arkansas- Fayetteville), who went 1-3 yesterday against the Stompers, slammed a double off of the center field wall to bring Button around to third. Button thought about trying for a run, but a strong relay from Sonoma forced him to reconsider. A groundout by Ryan Ellis stranded both, though, as the score remained level at the close of the inning.
An exciting top of the third began with a grounded single that came straight at Berggren and put Burden on base. Burden was able to steal on a wild pitch, but his greed got ahead of him and on an attempt to steal third, Button easily threw him out. Button has been becoming more and more reflexive this summer and, along with fellow catcher Sam Gilliam (Sacramento State), exemplifies the strength of the Crawdads behind the plate.
Once Sonoma had identified the ability to get a hit on a grounder right down the middle and over second base, they hit that spot again and again and again. Logan Azem (University of San Francisco) lined one down the middle to put himself on first base. Stepping up to the plate, Alfredo Capacete (University of California- Riverside) hit a sky-high ball that seemed as if it would be long gone. In a stroke of luck for Walnut Creek, the ball bounced off of the top of the center field wall and back into play. Helfrick picked it up and in a thrilling relay to home, Button swiped the glove across Azem’s body to keep the score even. A single crushed deep to left center shortly after would unfortunately bring a runner across though and allow Sonoma to regain the lead.
A leadoff double for Tyson Pointer (University of Texas- Arlington) came early in the bottom of the fourth after the sun proved an obstacle in what was almost a routine foul out. Farfan followed that with a single to center that put Crawdads on each of the corners. Pointer was able to come across on a fielder’s choice that took Farfan out at second and, once again, the score was tied.
Another ball was slashed down the middle for a Stomper single to start the fifth and a second placed runners on the corners. Berggren walked catcher Omar Gastelum (San Jose State) to load the bases for Sonoma. A sacrifice fly from Azem gave Sonoma the lead once again and a double from Capacete brought another home. The Stompers now led by more than one run for the first time in the game.
A round of applause went up around the crowd as Berggren’s day ended and head coach Brant Cummings brought Cade Cushing (San Jose State) in from the bullpen to record the final out of the inning. Cushing walked Jose Ruiz (University of California- Santa Barbara) to load up the bases, and the crowd seemed to hold their breath. But a swinging strikeout by Derek Bartram (Fresno State) would strand all three Stompers on base and hold their lead at just two.
In the bottom of the fifth, Matt King began the Crawdad comeback with a double down the left field line to score Joey Donnelly (California). King has been hitting the ball harder as this season progressed and this single could not have come at a better time to invigorate the offense. Cole Fellows (Columbia) knocked a single to right field to advance King to third and a single to left field from Pointer evened the score up once again with still only one out in the inning.
Hawk Hill’s day would end with that as Garrett James (Texas Lutheran University) took the mount for the Stompers. He was able to strike Farfan out but an error on an unintentional bunt would load the bases for the Crawdads. On three overthrows, a single from Helfrick became a little league inside-the-park home run, ending the aforementioned symmetry of the scoreboard. James was able to end the inning, though just a batter too late, on a questionable strikeout of Ellis, which he had some words with the umpire about.
No runs would score for the rest of the game, making that fifth inning the only aberration on an otherwise perfectly equal scoreboard.
Errors plagued the Stompers defense today. With 4 on the day and two of them costing the game for Sonoma, their overthrows were memorable. Though they have been eliminated from playoff contention, their quest to play spoiler to the Crawdads proved unsuccessful today. Tomorrow the Walnut Creek Crawdads will travel up to Sonoma to finish out the season at Arnold Field.
For fans of Bay Area baseball, the race to first place in the CCL North will be reminiscent of the 2021 NL West race. A win on Sunday would secure the No. 1 seed for the Crawdads, but a Healdsburg win tonight and a loss tomorrow would merely land a 2 seed. Regardless of what happens tomorrow, though, the 2023 Walnut Creek Crawdads have been a delight to watch. An underdog team defying the odds, beating some of the best teams in the league, and reaching for the first place seed which is so close they can almost taste it. As the sun sets on Monte Vista High School and the regular season comes to an end, only one sentiment can sum it up: What a summer!