They’ve done it at times without their top pitcher, without their head coach and without much hope.
The Cuesta College baseball team hasn’t just gone down fighting. The Cougars haven’t gone down, period.
Once a team that needed some unlikely upsets and help from others just to squeak into the postseason, Cuesta finds itself in the Super Regional round and aiming for a trip to the state championship — on a high after knocking off No. 2 San Diego City in a best-of-three first-round series last weekend.
The Cougars (22-18) — originally the No. 16 seed in Southern California — will take on No. 1 Santa Ana (30-8) today in the first round of a four-team double-elimination tournament to determine one of four teams to advance to the state championship.
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“It’s a great time to be playing your best ball,” sophomore all-conference outfielder Matt Anderson said. “This is when you want to be at your best. It’s great to be on a roll in May when you thought you didn’t even have a chance in late April.”
On April 24, the Cougars were coming off a three-game Western State Conference losing streak and were facing long odds of clinching a playoff spot.
They needed four straight wins to close out the season, including a sweep over Santa Barbara City, just for a shot to tie the Vaqueros for third in the conference standings. Santa Barbara City had to lose at least three of its last four.
“I certainly haven’t written my club off,” Cuesta head coach Bob Miller said. “The thing that we found here in the last four, five, eight games has really been an unbelievable will to compete. And when you get teams in the playoffs, talent can sometimes go out the window and will to compete can level the playing field.”
Cuesta beat Moorpark in two one-run games, got the loss it needed from Santa Barbara City and capped a two-game sweep of the Vaqueros with a 13-11, 10-inning win on the final day of the regular season.
Had any of those results gone the other way and had the Cougars not salvaged a 3-2 win over first-place Oxnard earlier in the month, Cuesta would not have earned the conference’s final berth on a tiebreaker.
The improbable journey did not stop there.
The Cougars had to beat No. 17 Southwestern 5-4 in an 11-inning play-in game for the right to travel to San Diego.
In perhaps the defining moment of the season, Cuesta then took two of three from the Knights after San Diego City won Game 1 on a walk-off hit and stormed out to a 10-5 lead in Game 2 the following day.
The Cougars won that game 11-10 in 11 innings and came back to crush the Knights 20-7 in Game 3.
“Once we came back that second game and ended it in extras, their dugout was dead,” said Cuesta sophomore second baseman Austin Cunningham, who is second in the state with three triples during the playoffs. “They were just exhausted. It was almost like they gave up.”
The entire run was completed with staff ace Jon Moscot (6-2, 2.04 ERA) out of the lineup with a forearm strain. The Cougars even pulled off the two wins over San Diego without Miller, who was ejected from the second game for arguing balls and strikes.
After playing in just one extra-inning game all season, Cuesta has won four of the past seven games in the 10th or 11th.
The ride has been as wild as it seems.
“We feel about the same way we look,” said sophomore first baseman Ty Muller, who leads the team with a .324 batting average and seven home runs. “It’s exciting every day to come to the park. We might be down in the ninth inning, 10th inning but we’ve come out on top. It feels good.
“We’ve played 17 one-run games. It’s nothing new for us to be playing tight ballgames. It’s not something you want to be proud of, but I think at this point, it’s prepared us to battle those out.”
Miller called the situation this season similar to his 2007 team, which ended up one win away from the final four. The Cougars did not have enough pitching that season, and with injuries forcing them to go without a set rotation this year, depth on the mound is also a concern.
Cuesta could get Moscot back for this weekend. Miller said he’s not 100 percent but could contribute.
Cory Ginther (3-3, 3.93 ERA) hadn’t pitched in a month and was in a similar situation last week when he came on in relief to pick up the first win over San Diego City.
Phillip Gerber (3-2, 2.88 ERA) has also been a go-to guy, and former San Luis Obispo High star John Tiedemann (3-1, 3.72 ERA) has been a strikeout machine.
Former Paso Robles High standout John Brehm (2-2, 4.78 ERA), a former Tribune County Player of the Year, and converted catcher Jake Reed (4-4, 5.53 ERA) are the other two reliable arms.
The biggest thing the Cougars have going for them, however, has been their recent propensity to pick up key hits.
Muller had a solo home run to pull out the 10-inning game against Moorpark just one day after shortstop T.J. Felicia completed a comeback win with a grand slam. Outfielder Michael Camporeale leads the Cougars with nine hits in the playoffs.
As the extra-inning victories are a testament to, Cuesta batters are not missing pitches in big moments — no matter what the seedings say.
“We don’t have the best batting average or the best ERA,” Anderson said, “but as far as everybody going out and playing together, we definitely figured that out as of late, and I think we’re all better off for that.”