Cuesta College wasn’t quite at its best Saturday afternoon, and visiting Chaffey showed up like a team not ready to let the season come to an end.
The Foothill Conference champion Panthers pounded out nine hits and held on late en route to a 10-8 victory over the Cougars during the second round of the California Community College Athletics Association playoffs.
With the best-of-three series even at one game apiece, Cuesta and Chaffey will meet again at noon Sunday with a berth in the regional finals up for grabs. The Cougars (28-13) were in the same position last weekend and will have the benefit of putting decorated sophomore Brendan Jenkins on the mound in a win-or-go-home situation.
“I think the players, having that experience before, will certainly take something from that and be prepared to go,” head coach Bob Miller said. “You never know what the challenge of the day is, but we’ll be ready to go.”
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An opportunistic Chaffey group gave the Cougars everything they could handle during Game 2.
The Panthers (30-10) took an early lead when shortstop Cody Palmer hit a grand slam off Cuesta starter Neil Uskali in the third inning. A first-team all-conference performer, Uskali retired the first six batters he faced in order before things started to unravel in the third.
After Palmer’s fourth home run of the season, Uskali (7-3) gave up three more runs in the fourth to conclude his shortest start of the year. He allowed seven runs on five hits and was pulled in favor of Cayce Rocco to start the fifth.
Cuesta had a difficult time getting the leadoff batter out in nearly every inning, which Miller said was a key factor in Chaffey’s 10-run outburst. The Panthers’ leadoff batter reached safely in six straight innings from the third through the eighth, four of them drawing walks.
“We’ve got to work ahead,” Miller said. “Every hitter is important, but getting the first out of the inning is a big piece.”
Chaffey’s No. 8 hitter, left fielder Jacob Arguello, seemed to be the hardest out for Cuesta’s pitching staff. He went 3 for 3, was hit by a pitch and scored four times in the victory. No. 9 hitter Oscar Martinez (2 for 4) and Palmer (2 for 5) also had multiple hits for the Panthers.
But each time it looked like Chaffey might blow the game open, the Cougars found an answer.
Sophomore left fielder Nick Rutckyj followed up Palmer’s grand slam with a three-run home run of his own to tie the score at 4-all. The Cougars continued to chip away at the deficit, scoring one run in the fifth, two in the seventh and one more in the eighth to pull within 9-8.
A series of passed balls and wild pitches in the bottom of the eighth allowed Chaffey to score one more insurance run and brought the score to the final margin.
Cuesta leadoff hitter Dustin Miller, the Western State Conference Player of the Year, went 3 for 4 with two doubles, and his one-out single in the ninth briefly gave the Cougars hope. But Miller was picked off at first base, and Garrett Giovannelli hit a line drive to the shortstop to end the game two batters later.
“We know what it feels like to lose the second one,” said third baseman Josh Medina, who finished 2 for 3 with an RBI double. “I believe in our guys. I feel like we’re going to come out tomorrow and bring the energy we need.”
Miller said Jenkins (8-5) is scheduled to start Sunday’s series finale. The hard-throwing sophomore proved to be the difference maker in Cuesta’s first-round win over Palomar, and Miller expects more of the same this week.
“Having Brendan, a guy who’s been in that situation before, the career that he’s had here at Cuesta, we’ve got the right guy going for us,” Miller said.