(Lead photo by Heston Quan)
IRVINE– Softball games can turn in the blink of an eye like few other sports can.
The Roosevelt Mustangs came into the Southern Section Division 1 championship at Deanna Manning Stadium as no stranger to late-game heroics. So it should come as no surprise that despite playing from behind all night, they were unfazed by the pressure with a title on the line in the seventh inning.
Roosevelt fixed what had been a quiet night offensively with an explosive finish on Saturday, and defeated Los Alamitos 5-4 in the eleventh hour to win a title in riveting fashion.
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Los Al wasted no time in striking first on Roosevelt ace Priscilla Llamas. Julie Holcomb started the game with a single on a bunt that was placed perfectly between home plate and the pitching circle. Jazzy Santos stayed back on a changeup and drove it the opposite way for a double, driving in Holcomb, and later scored on a double from Taylor Johnson.
Down 2-0 after half an inning, the Mustangs kept the momentum from getting too far out of hand by getting on the board as well.
Kaylynn Jones started it off by drawing a one-out walk. Next, Kayla Lyon hit a chopper fairly hard to the left side that looked like a potential double-play ball, but it took an unusual bounce in front of the fielder for an error that could be argued as an infield single. Ashlee Annett walked to load the bases, and Alexia Lopez drove in Jones to cut the deficit to 2-1 before Saldana and the Griffins ended the rally and avoided further harm.
After that, both pitchers settled in admirably for most of the game. Llamas did leave a couple mistakes over the plate to Callie Fitzpatrick and Johnson in the fifth and sixth innings, respectively, and each resulted in a solo blast. But overall, the sophomore star did an admirable job navigating arguably the deepest lineup in California, and she showed poise beyond her years.
In addition to a heater with good velo, Llamas features a slow changeup that usually has wicked movement both vertically and laterally, and occasionally runs jarringly straight instead with a late drop. Not only is her off-speed arsenal outright filthy, but it's made more deceptive in by her seemingly-effortless delivery on her heaters. While a few Griffins did a textbook job recognizing and staying back on Llamas' changeups, most of them stifled batters and captivated the audience.
That said, it was the Sydney Saldana show for most of the game, and most of the postseason for that matter – particularly in the semifinals when she shut out Oaks Christian, the No. 1 team in the state at the time. After giving up that one run in the first, Saldana threw five scoreless innings afterwards, and only gave up four total hits through six innings. While she wasn't overpowering, she located well and kept the ball down in the zone. She successfully challenged batters with heaters that had funky spin and a lot of late break, ideal for inducing ground balls.
Roosevelt nearly got something going down 3-1 in the fifth inning after Lyon walked and Annett blooped what looked like a single into shallow left field. However, Malayna Terrones got a good jump on it and caught it diving forward, making the first out of the inning instead of having two Mustangs on base with the middle of the lineup coming up.
But the Griffins couldn't quite seal the deal. After trailing all game, Roosevelt turned the tables at the drop of the hat in the bottom of the seventh inning.
Lyon led off with a single, and Annett reached on a fielder's choice. Then, Lopez got a base hit and Marissa Morales followed it up with a walk to load the bases and bring the winning run to the plate. Slapper Jordan Elias cut the deficit to 4-2 upon reaching with an infield single, and that brought up Emily Carr, who'd been one of the top clutch hitters in the section for much of the season even while hitting eighth for the Mustangs. Carr lined a ground ball up the middle that quickly whizzed into deep right center field, and with the speedy Elias flying off of first, it turned into a rare three-run single without a play at the plate.
Carr's walk-off proved to be as bizarre as it was dramatic and clutch. Although the game-winning run had already scored, Carr was tagged between home plate and first base and ruled out by the umpire. It was unclear if the umpire believed she never crossed first to begin with, or if the Mustangs had started celebrating before the officials ruled the game as over. But after the tag, the ruling, and a tense pause of several seconds, the umps confirmed that the game was over.
Does that mean the Southern Section title was technically decided on a walk-off.. three-run groundout? Perhaps, but either way, it wasn't long before Roosevelt could officially resume celebrating its status as the new top dog in Southern Section softball.