Cuesta College baseball coach Bob Miller didn’t feel the need to give a dramatic pep talk in between games Saturday afternoon.
After the sixth-seeded Cougars lost the opening game of a doubleheader against visiting Palomar in the first round of the California Community College Athletics Association playoffs, the 14th-year head coach simply turned the page and started writing out a lineup for Game 3.
A veteran Cuesta team responded during the final contest of a best-of-three series, scoring early and riding a sharp performance from starting pitcher Brendan Jenkins en route to a 3-2 victory.
For the first time since 2010, the Western State Conference champion Cougars secured a spot in the second round and will find out their next opponent on Sunday.
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“When you get to these win-and-advance type situations, it’s a different energy than the regular season,” Miller said. “The energy level and the pressure components are so much higher.”
Cuesta rallied to win the series opener Friday afternoon, and seemed to bring some momentum into Saturday’s opener.
The Cougars staked sophomore right-hander Neil Uskali to a 3-0 lead through five innings, but eventually the Comets found their rhythm and erupted for eight combined runs in the sixth and seventh.
Palomar (25-14) took the opening game of the doubleheader, 9-5, with the six-run sixth proving to be its most productive frame of the 27-inning series.
Jenkins, a first-team all-conference performer, made sure the Comets wouldn’t have the same success in the finale. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound right-hander retired nine consecutive batters during one stretch and scattered seven hits over eight innings.
Jenkins also had the benefit of pitching with the lead the entire game.
Cuesta sent eight batters to the plate in the first inning against Palomar starter Troy Lamparello, who also pitched the final 2 1/3 innings of Saturday’s opener and dealt with a 40-minute break in between games.
The Cougars took advantage, hitting three straight singles to load the bases. Third baseman Josh Medina and left fielder Nick Rutckyj each drew bases-loaded walks to give the hard-throwing Jenkins some welcome breathing room.
“We’ve been working for this since August, every day, five days a week,” Jenkins said. “Just to be able to get the chance to move on, we’re one step closer to our goal.”
Cuesta scored once more in the fourth when Arroyo Grande graduate Robbie Silva singled and eventually came around to score on a throwing error three batters later.
Palomar refused to let its season end quietly, however.
Jenkins gave up two singles to start the ninth, prompting Miller to bring in sophomore Anthony Baleto to close the game. A passed ball allowed the Comets to score their second run and put the tying runner on third with no outs.
Baleto got the next two batters to pop out and ended the game in dramatic fashion, striking out designated hitter Matt Wezniak with a knee-buckling curveball.
“It was pretty fun to be a part of that energy,” Miller said. “I wish I could take credit for that. That was them wanting to play and wanting to get a job done.”