Coyotes capture Div. II Valley Championship
Tyler Takeda/The Madera Tribune
Madera Coyote baseball players and coaches gather around the Central Section Div. II Championship plaque after a 9-1 victory over Arroyo Grande on Friday.
ARROYO GRANDE — Throughout the postseason, Madera Coyotes baseball assistant coach Jake Saldate has been preaching to his team, “Why not us.”
On Friday, after a three-hour bus ride, the sixth seeded Coyotes proved the game is played on the field, not on paper after a 9-1 victory over top-seeded Arroyo Grande.
“We did the little things right today,” Saldate, who announced this year he would not be back after 20 years as a Coyote baseball coach. “We did what we needed to do to win. We didn’t play like a six seed. We played like the best team in the Valley and they deserve it.
“It means a lot to win. I didn’t tell them I was resigning until late in the season. We just kept saying, “Why not us,” and they carried that through the playoffs. They kept telling me at practice they were doing it for me. The last four games, they’ve been the best team in the Valley.”
Nathan Palacioz stayed hot on the mound by tossing a two-hitter. He had a no-hitter going for the first five innings and allowed just two hits, in an 84-pitch effort. He walked two and struck out nine.
“Our pitchers are phenomenal,” head coach Andy Underwood said. “Nate today was the best I’ve ever seen him. That’s up there with the best games he’s pitched. He was flawless. Everything was breaking and moving. He was getting ahead of hitters. He was attacking. He had a winner’s mentality today.”
“This was definitely the best game I’ve pitched,” Palacioz said. “It feels amazing. We all wanted this. It was crazy. My curveball was working, my fastball and a little bit of my change-up. It was a good day. It’s amazing.”
Underwood went through the entire postseason using just two pitchers — the Nates (Nate Martinez and Nate Palacioz). The two allowed just five runs in the four games of the tournament.
“Nate Palacioz and Nate Martinez are probably the two best pitchers in the Valley,” Saldate said. “They put us on their backs.”
While the Nates were doing their part, the offense started to pick up their game. In the four playoff games, Madera scored 28 runs with upsets over No. 3 Fresno, No. 2 El Diamante-Visalia and No. 1 Arroyo Grande.
“That was part of our problem was that something was off. Something clicked before the Madera South,” Underwood said. “All through the playoffs, we’ve had great defense. The biggest thing was our energy. Our dugout has been incredible on energy and unmatched by any team.”
What helped the dugout energy was the presence of the past. Six former Coyote players joined this year’s team in the dugout to help keep the energy up.
“Our older guys did a great job setting the table for us to get going. I love having them. They’re family,” Underwood said. “I get upset when players leave Madera to go somewhere else. Look around. We’re all family here. For these guys on this team to experience this, it’s just a memory they will have. Everyone that saw this will have an incredible memory.”
Although the Coyote bats produced 28 runs in the playoff run, including six runs in the fifth inning Friday, Arroyo Grande came into the game after scoring 15 runs in their two games before getting silenced to a single run.
“With this team being 27-3 and the talent they had and the type of program they have, I didn’t feel like any lead was safe,” Underwood said. “They dominated everyone all year.”
Isaiah Monge led the Coyotes’ offense with three hits. He also scored a run.
“It feels amazing to go down in history,” he said. “It’s incredible. When our guy goes to the mound, we do our best to battle for him. Today, we played well. Our bats woke up today.”
David Zavala provided the defensive highlight of the game with a head-long dive towards the centerfield fence to rob an Eagles’ batter of at least a double in the third inning. Zavala ended up hitting his head against the fence, but held on for the catch.
“It was kind of scary,” he said. “I knew the warning track was coming. I caught the ball, the next thing I knew I went forehead-first into the fence. I caught the ball, though. That’s all that matters.”
While Palacioz set down the first 12 Arroyo Grande batters down in order, the offense started rolling in the third. Madera’s first three runs were unearned.
Logan Wattenbarger started a two-out, nobody-on rally with a four-pitch walk. He stole second.
Monge hit a ball to the Arroyo Grande third baseman. He made the grab with a dive, but hurt his left (non-throwing shoulder) and crumpled in pain. Meanwhile, Wattenbarger, noticing the injury, broke for the plate. The third baseman threw from the ground to the plate, but it went over the catcher’s head for an error while Wattenbarger scored the game’s first run. The third baseman remained in the game.
Madera added to its lead with another two-out, nobody on rally in the fourth that was started when Izaak Murillo reached on an error.
Isaac Flores singled up the middle and Murillo advanced to second. A passed ball advanced both runners 90 feet.
On the next pitch, Matthew Del Toro hit a ball off the right field netting for a long single, but Murillo and Flores scored for a 3-0 lead.
The Coyotes broke the game open in the sixth. Wattenbarger started the rally with a single and then stole second. Monge singled to left to move Wattenbarger to third. Palacioz drew a walk to load the bases.
After a strikeout, Ivan Ponce drew a walk to force in Wattenbarger and keep the bases loaded.
Murillo singled up the middle to drive home Monge and Palacioz. Flores drew a walk to re-load the bases.
A wild pitch to Del Toro allowed Ponce to score. Zavala reached on an infield single while Murillo scored. Wattenbarger reached on a throwing error to allow Flores to score and the Coyotes led 9-0 after a six-run, 11-batter inning.
“It gave us a little bit to kick back, but it wasn’t enough,” Zavala said of the big inning. “We still had to compete. Anything can happen in the game of baseball. It feels good to get the Valley Championship with all the hard work we put in.”
Palacioz ran into trouble in the sixth, but later settled down. He allowed his first hit of the game, a liner to right. He walked the next batter.
The next batter reached on a fielder’s choice after a force out at second, although the pivot throw to first was close to completing the double play.
The Eagles’ lead-off batter singled to left to drive in their first run of the game.
However, Palacioz settled down and struck out the next two batters on six pitches to end the inning.
In the seventh, with the energy building for the program’s first Central Section championship since 2013, Palacioz got the first batter to ground out to Ponce at second.
He struck out the next batter for the second time in the game. He went to a full count to the next batter and ended the game with his ninth strikeout to set off an on-field celebration.
Madera continues play in the CIF Southern California Baseball Championships on Tuesday as the No. 3 seed hosting No. 6 seed Camarillo in Mel Parker Field at 4 p.m. Camarillo won the Coastal Canyon Conference title and lost in the semifinals of the Div. II Southern Section playoffs.