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Granite Bay survives first round test with Pondo

Grizzlies thrive in two-out situations
By: Kurt Johnson, The Press Tribune
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The draw wasn’t ideal for the champions of the Sierra Foothill League, but the Granite Bay High baseball team made it work. The do-or-die nature of the first round in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II playoffs makes for a nervous night for high school baseball coaches. Run into a hot pitcher and even the best team can be knocked out without having a shot at the best-of-three format that arrives in round two. In a somewhat strange tournament bracket, the Grizzlies faced off with the second place team from the formidable Sierra Valley Conference, Ponderosa, while the SFL’s No. 2, Rocklin, drew the SVC’s third-place team. “This was a tough draw,” said Granite Bay coach Pat Esposito. “These guys (Ponderosa) can really swing it. They have some guys who can hit for power and they can put up a bunch of runs.” The Grizzlies countered with ace right-hander Braden Young, and while he was not on his best game, he delivered a victory for Granite Bay Friday night at Sacramento City College. “The two-week layoff hurt his stuff some,” Esposito said, “but with what Ponderosa can do, we felt really good having Braden Young out there tonight.” The game did not start out as a dream scenario for the Grizzlies, but they recovered quickly and took care of Ponderosa 7-3 to earn their way into that round two series, where they will see a familiar foe, in SFL rival Roseville. Depth was a major storyline for Granite Bay Friday night, beginning with a significant hole in the starting lineup. Right fielder and lead-off batter Sean Sundberg is not with the team for this playoff run, and that left Esposito scrambling to fill the void. He went with shortstop Jake Riffice at the top of the order, and the senior took care of business. “We talked a lot about who we wanted to put in the No. 1 spot in the order,” Esposito said. “His experience and high on-base numbers pushed us to go with Riffice there.” After giving up a run on a walk and a Tanner McMahon single in the top of the first, Granite Bay posted back-to-back three-run innings in the second and third to seize control of the game. Both rallies were keyed not by the high profile Grizzlies, but by the bottom third of the order. After two were out in the home half of the second, Matt Gifford, Adam Mastrantonio and Jordan Weber, hitting in the seven, eight and nine spots, put together consecutive singles. After Riffice was hit by a pitch, junior third baseman Nate Esposito snuck the ball past third base and down the left-field line for a two-run double. “We have done that all year long,” Pat Esposito said. “The top guys in our order can really hit, but they don’t see a lot of pitches and might get a bit impatient. We have guys down the order who wait for a good pitch to hit and make good things happen.” A similar combination worked again in the very next stanza, as Gifford hit a two-out home run to get things going. After Mastrantonio walked and stole second, Weber singled him home and then Riffice chased home a third tally with a base hit of his own. From that point, it was on Young and a stout Granite Bay defense to finish off the Bruins. Both came through, though not without some tense moments. An error and a T.J. Meleski triple got one back for Ponderosa in the fourth, but the inning was cut short when Meleski was called out trying to score on a wild pitch. A pair of flares gave the Bruins some hope in the fifth, with two bloopers putting two aboard with no one out, but a little defensive magic turned a possible big inning into just one run. Young came down to field a nubber on the third base side of the mound. After a quick look to third, he threw to second for the play on that runner, and Riffice did a sensational job of catching and releasing quickly to turn it into a double play. “Quick hands and quick feet are what make him (Riffice) a great player,” Esposito said. “On that play and the ball up the middle in the seventh, you could see how quickly he releases the ball. He may not have the strongest arm, but he makes up for it with that quickness.” Ponderosa did get one that inning on the Hunter Gallant single that followed, but it could have been much worse for Granite Bay. The Grizzlies tacked on an insurance run in the sixth with some help from Ponderosa. As with the previous six Granite Bay scores, this one came after the bases were empty and two were out. Jake Marjama reached on an infield single and moved to third on a Riley Drongesen double. Marjama was content to stop there until the throw back to the infield got away, allowing him to score without a throw to the plate. The Bruins got two on after two were out in the seventh, but Young struck out Gallant to finish them off and send Granite Bay into the semifinals. It was the ninth strikeout of the night for the Grizzly pitcher, who yielded eight hits but managed to make big pitches every time he needed one. The strikeout was also notable because it included the block of a ball in the dirt by catcher Andrew Knapp, who then threw out the hitter at first base. The Grizzly backstop was tested by a number of breaking balls in the dirt with runners in scoring position, but he had a strong night keeping the ball in front of him and keeping the runners in place. Weber and Gifford were the only two Grizzlies with multiple hits, as every Granite Bay started contributed at least one knock on the night. Of concern to Granite Bay going forward is a third inning injury to Weber, its center fielder. After his second hit, the speedster jammed his leg while sliding into second, and was unable to continue. Already somewhat short-handed because of the absence of Sundberg, Esposito went to his bench for a pair of junior varsity call-ups. Aaron Knapp scored a run in place of Weber and then Brett Bautista got the call in the outfield for his first varsity action. The loss ends Ponderosa’s season with a record of 15-12-1. Granite Bay (20-8) moves on to battle Roseville (15-13) in a best-of-three series that gets going at 8 p.m. Monday night back at Sacramento City College. The two teams will play game one that night and head back Wednesday at 5 p.m. for game two, followed by game three if it is necessary. The Grizzlies swept the three-game regular season series with the Tigers. Oak Ridge and another SFL team, Rocklin, are meeting in the other semifinal series. “Roseville is going to be tough,” Esposito said. “We definitely know what they do and they know what we do. They have some guys who can hit and they have the ability to score a lot of runs.”