LIVERMORE, Calif. —
It looked like the 17-game win streak to start the season — and run of good luck — had finally run out for the Granada (Livermore)
baseball team Friday afternoon.
Through 6½ innings, the Matadors had split the ball in two, ripping one line drive after another only to have them caught in the gloves of San Ramon Valley (Danville) players.
"Sure, there was some frustration setting in," Granada coach Corrigan Willis said. "It's only human nature. But there certainly wasn't any panic. These guys don't waver."
Said senior left fielder Ryan Kirby
: "(A loss or luck changing) never crossed my mind. It was just a matter of time."
Sure enough, though they hadn't trailed this late in any game this season, the Matadors rallied for three runs in the bottom of the seventh to take a seen-to-be-believed 4-3 East Bay Athletic League win.
Senior catcher Jordan Thraikill
smacked a game-ending single up the middle on the first pitch from reliever Conner Stahl for the only hit of the rally, which consisted of five walks and a high chopper off the bat of senior shortstop Miles Mastrobuoni
that was lost in the sun by the third baseman.
Yes, only at that exact moment of a setting sun at that exact spot on Granada's immaculate field could interfere with that type of ground ball that found the glove of a squinting infielder who then dropped it to load the bases. Back-to-back RBI walks by Ryan Dearborn
and Matt Richards
proceeded Thaikill's game-winning blast up the box.
Though the Matadors have been threatened little this season — they've outscored opponents 129-16 — apparently the team's mojo, Karma or lady luck is still running strong.
So is their MaxPreps Freeman (computer)
national No. 2 ranking — No. 37 in the MaxPreps Xcellent 50
"I've seen that type of ball lost in the sun before here," Willis said. "But it's rare."
As is the Matadors' win streak – or national acclaim. Granada has never even won a North Coast Section title.
"None of us have been on a streak like this," Willis said. "This is uncharted territory. We're enjoying it but taking it one game at a time. … I'll tell you what. It helps to have good players. And these guys don't waver."
With the win streak and sudden rise to national acclaim, many are wondering whose these guys exactly are.
"We've played together our whole lives," said Kirby, who is hitting .404 with a team-high 19 RBIs and has signed to play at the University of San Diego. "We've had a lot of success since Little League. Our season hasn't surprised us at all. We expected it."
Success yes. But not 18 straight wins, says fifth-year coach Willis, a 1996 Granada graduate who played two seasons at Metropolitan State in Denver. He's led Granada to three straight postseasons and 48 wins in that time. And with 12 returners back from last year, including eight senior starters, he had high hopes for 2013.
"It's a senior loaded team and a lot of them already have multiple postseason experiences," Willis said. "A comeback like today doesn't surprise me. They always come back. They want to be in the big moment."
They've been in few clutch moments this year largely because they've allowed less than a run per game.
The pitching tandem of Jacob Payne
(9-0, 0.13 ERA) and Anthony Olmo
(8-0, 0.92) have been virtually flawless. Payne, who stands only 5-foot-8, has been overpowering with 71 strikeouts in 53 innings. He's allowed one earned run all season and has three complete-game shutouts, including 4-0 over then-state ranked De La Salle (Concord).
Granada has eight shutouts this season, starting out with a pair of 1-0 wins over Berkeley and James Logan.
Payne pitched just 8.2 innings last year, but has been a workhorse.
"It's just been a lot of work," he said. "Over the summer, I put in a lot of innings and stopped playing a lot of positions. I've just become a lot more consistent and thrown strikes."
It's helped to have Olmo there to push him.
Olmo looks more the part, standing 6-2 and weighing 185. He and Payne are friends but definite rivals. Unlike Payne, he spent a lot of the offseason rehabbing, he said.
He's allowed just 26 hits in 45.1 innings with 45 strikeouts.
"We sort of feed off one another," Olmo said. "We push each other and try to keep up with each other. … We're all close. We had success as youth players and won the freshmen title together. Our chemistry is off the charts."
Beside Kirby, outfielders Vince Fernandez
(UC Riverside) and junior Casey Soltis
(Oregon) also have college scholarships secured. Willis said several others will sign by the end of the season.
First baseman Richards (.426), DH Craig Woolson
(.358), third basemen Dan Whitney
(.346), Soltis (.339) and Thraikill (.333) are all having big offensive seasons. Granada is hitting .316 and averages 7.2 runs per game in one of the region's top leagues.
The Matadors have a nice variety at the plate as well, with four regular left-handed bats. A fifth player switch hits.
"We're just always trying to get better," Kirby said. "It's all about the process and not to worry about the wins and losses."
But Friday's win was very good.
Good because the Matadors were challenged. They didn't allow their frustrations at the plate spill over the field. They played errorless defense and after giving up three runs in the first three frames, Olmo held San Ramon Valley scoreless the last four innings.
When Thraikill got his chance to be the hero, he wasted no time delivering the game winner, his first game-winning hit of the season.
"I was looking fastball but it was off-speed and I just drove it," Thraikill said. "We're 18-0 but just totally staying focused, in practice, in games. Our pitching has been great this year. Everyone is throwing strikes. We just have a good feeling every time we step on the field."
Even if it's after the game. Thirty minutes following the San Ramon Valley win, the players, who rake, drag, water and maintain the field, were engaged in a lively photo shoot.
Each player posed individually in a variety of manly and even goofball positions to the amusement of everyone. Willis' sons Bryce, 4, and Ryan, 1, along with assistant coach Tim Rankin's 3-year-old Ty even got in the act. By all accounts, the Matadors are a family unit, tight and together.
"I could and maybe should break it up with some coach speak," Willis said with a big smirk. "But let the guys have some fun. They've earned it. They have their heads on straight.
"We just want to keep it simple. We don't get ahead of ourselves or get caught up in all the hoopla."
E-mail Mitch Stephens at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @MitchMashMax