Desert Mountain baseball inches past Sunrise Mountain to advance to 5A semifinals

Desert Mountain senior Max Walker winds up for the pitch during the Wolves’ 2-0 win over Sunrise Mountain during the 5A state playoffs. (Independent Newsmedia/Jacob Stanek)

Early Monday night it was clear the second playoff meeting between Desert Mountain and Sunrise Mountain high schools would be nothing like the first.

The Wolves routed the Mustangs 14-2 in both teams’ opening game of 5A double elimination play a week ago. This time, with both squads’ seasons on the line, they engaged in a taut pitchers duel with a margin of inches.

When No. 4 Desert Mountain (26-6) needed it, senior Anthony Caraballo provided the crucial inch. In his team’s 2-0 victory, Caraballo notched the game’s only RBI, tracked down the Mustangs’ most dangerous drive and recorded the save.

Once the rematch was on, Wolves coach Eric Kehoe said he knew this game at Tempe Diablo Stadium and No. 12 Sunrise Mountain (20-12) would be far different.

“I thought about that on Thursday night when we lost to Nogales. I told our guys on Friday that we’re not going to score eight runs in the first inning,” he said.

“We needed to expect their best shot. They’re a prideful team and a prideful group so we’re going to have to execute and do the little things a little bit better than them. That always starts with pitching and defense this time of year.”

True to form, the Mustangs gave his team everything it wanted in Monday’s duel. The Wolves can enjoy being on the opposite side of the equation in their rematch with No. 1 seed Nogales (25-4) at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 9 at Diablo.

Like Sunrise Mountain, two-time 4A champion Nogales made the move up this year and brought an elite reputation along. While Coach Kehoe had heard about and practiced against the Apaches’ precision small ball and active running game, stopping it is something else entirely.

Nogales jumped ahead 3-0 en route to a 5-2 win over the Wolves on May 2.

“Give credit to them. I think they had three or four bunts for hits that you couldn’t have rolled them out there any better than that. But after the third inning we settled in and battled,” Coach Kehoe said.

“Now that we’ve played them one time, seeing their game speed and how their whole baseball culture is, I think that’s going to have us better prepared. We can talk about it all we want and prepare all we want, but until we actually see it, it can be hard to adjust.”

Despite both teams having to manage their pitching this deep into the tournament, both starters seized command early.

Sunrise Mountain sophomore Alex Ramirez had not seen much varsity action, but was largely unflappable in his 5 1/3-inning outing.

“We have a lot of faith in him. He’s a guy that’s done it all year down on our JV squad. He threw varsity in the double elimination tournament because it was all hands on deck,” Sunrise Mountain coach Michael Deardoff said. “He showed that he’s a very good pitcher who competes. That game wasn’t too big for him.”

Senior Paul Sachen led off the bottom of the third with a single and Caraballo drove him in by doubling to deep center. Ramirez recovered to get out of the third and send Desert Mountain down in order in the fourth.

Meanwhile, Mustangs junior Garrett Moltz hit a one-out bloop single in the third for one of only two Mustangs hits on the night. He advanced to third but senior starter Maximus Walker shut the inning down.

Walker gave way to Sachen – who pitched the fifth and sixth – and Caraballo closed it out.

“It’s an elimination game so it’s a ‘Johnny whole-staff’ approach. That kind of checked all the boxes,” Coach Kehoe said. “Obviously, that second run was huge.”

That run came after a Sachen walk and senior Michael Pizzagoni’s one-out single to center in the fifth – one of only three hits allowed by Ramirez. He advanced to second on a fielder’s choice.

The Mustangs tried to catch Pizzagoni stealing second, but the ball flew out on the tag attempt, allowing Sachen to come home.

The run looked especially big when senior Jarrett Kellerhals walked to start the second. Senior catcher Ethan Snodgrass stepped in and drove a pitch deep to left.

Coach Kehoe said his team was doubly fortunate on that play – that the game was in a big league spring training park with a deeper outfield, and that he shifted the outfield into a deeper, “no doubles” stance. Caraballo ran it down near the warning track.

Senior Caleb Thomason walked, but the Wolves picked up a lineout double play to end the sixth and were not threatened in the seventh.

“Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether it’s a two-run game or it’s not close. It’s tough when the season finishes, especially for the seniors and for how well we’ve competed,” Coach Deardoff said.

Editor’s Note: Richard Smith is the West Valley Preps sports editor for the Daily News Sun.

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