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Walk-off single helps Central Catholic beat Pioneer, secure section-best 12th baseball title

Adrian Garcia had no time to get away as his teammates in blue pinstripe jerseys mobbed him between first and second base when the game ended.

Before he knew it, he was in an unfamiliar situation. On the ground. At the bottom of a dogpile.

Not even two minutes earlier, Garcia had been standing in the batter’s box in the bottom of the ninth inning, with two runners on base. A glaring 0-for-4 was next to his name in the box score in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship game Thursday against Pioneer.

“I wasn’t really seeing the ball too well,” he admitted, “but I knew he was gonna come straight at me with strikes. … I was ready to hammer the baseball.”

With Braxton Thomas at third, TP Wentworth at first and the game tied at 2-2, Garcia lined the first pitch of his final at-bat down the third base line, scoring Thomas from third to secure the walk-off win.

“I saw everyone running out with water and I was just like, wow, we just won the section I just hit a walk-off,” Garcia said. “Then I was at the bottom of the dogpile and I couldn’t breathe for a good 30 seconds, but I mean, I’m alive. We’re good.”

As Thomas crossed home plate, he threw his helmet in the air. Raiders in the dugout quickly exited the moment Garcia’s line drive hit the well-kept left field grass. They raced to the infield, open water bottles in hand.

Raiders coach Danny Ayala was the last one out to the dogpile.

“I was trying to take in the moment and enjoy it. As soon as he hit it, I knew it was through,” Ayala said. “Then it was coach-mode watching Brax score but I turned around to make sure Agar (Garcia) touched first. All my baseball guys were acting like baseball guys. These guys were celebrating, these guys were making sure they took care of business. It was an awesome moment.”

It looked exactly like the celebration of a battle-tested team, one longing for a section title — exactly what this year’s squad is.

What started in disappointment in last year’s section semifinal series loss to Vanden ended in the exhilaration of victory Thursday night.

A Division IV team bumped up to the Division III playoffs by virtue of winning the ultracompetitive D-III Valley Oak League, the Raiders this year went through Los Banos and Roseville in the first two rounds without giving up a run. After losing the series opener against Christian Brothers on May 15, they swept the next two meetings to earn a spot in the championship.

It is the Raiders’ section-best 12th baseball title and first since the program won 10 straight from 2000 to 2009 in Divisions IV and V. This year’s championship appearance was the first since 2019. This year’s championship is the program’s first in Division III.

“To get over the hump is amazing,” Wentworth said. “And I would not rather do it with any other team. The coaches have done a great job and they’re the reason we’re here, sticking with us every practice and getting us here. So I’m excited to keep going this season.”

Thomas’ first at-bat was like something from a video game. Two pitches into the game, the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo signee and the team’s offensive leader launched a towering fly ball over the center field fence. It gave the Raiders a 1-0 lead and helped him regain his crown as the state’s leading home run hitter, according to MaxPreps.

Central Catholic outfielder Braxton Thomas stands in the batter’s box just before hitting his 13th home run of the season in the first inning of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III Championship game at Islander’s Park in Lathrop on Thursday, May 25, 2023. Central Catholic won the game 3-2 in extra innings.
Central Catholic outfielder Braxton Thomas stands in the batter’s box just before hitting his 13th home run of the season in the first inning of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III Championship game at Islander’s Park in Lathrop on Thursday, May 25, 2023. Central Catholic won the game 3-2 in extra innings.

“That was sick, that felt amazing,” said Thomas, who went 4-for-5 with an RBI and scored a pair of runs. “It felt like a MLB The Show kind of moment.”

The Raiders capitalized on an error, scoring their second run in the bottom of the fourth. Wentworth had a great outing in his first championship game start, striking out 11 batters and allowing just six hits through his first six innings of work. In the top of the seventh, Pioneer’s offense came alive. The Patriots opened the inning with three straight singles, loading the bases with no outs and scoring their first run of the game on an error. They scored their second run of the inning on a sacrifice fly to tie the game at two runs apiece before the Raiders ended the inning on a double play.

“I was going pitch to pitch, just trying to get an out,” Wentworth said. “To have a double play happen in that situation was just absolutely a blessing, and to be able to make a pitch like that was awesome. I’m just glad that this team was able to help me out there.”

Garcia, who started the game at second base, came on in relief in the top of the eighth, striking out two batters and allowing a hit in two innings of work before ending the game in the bottom of the ninth.

“TP had gone eight innings. I knew it was gonna be my time soon so I got hot,” Garcia said. “I was ready to go.

“We knew we made it this far, we worked so hard all season we weren’t just going to back down.”

Central Catholic starting pitcher TP Wentworth delivers a pitch in the first inning of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III Championship game at Islander’s Park in Lathrop on Thursday, May 25, 2023. Central Catholic won the game 3-2 in extra innings.
Central Catholic starting pitcher TP Wentworth delivers a pitch in the first inning of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III Championship game at Islander’s Park in Lathrop on Thursday, May 25, 2023. Central Catholic won the game 3-2 in extra innings.

For the senior class of Thomas, Joel Roberts and Jaelen Nichols, the win caps a four-year journey in which they had to overcome missing nearly two full seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a heartbreaking loss in the 2022 semifinals and a 1-2-1 start this season.

“It feels amazing, especially to do it with the kids that I have been growing up with since I was little,” Thomas said. “With TP and Agar (Garcia), coming out and shoving it and then him walking it off, of course. It’s a pretty cool moment.”

The Raiders will learn their division and first-round opponent Sunday, May 28. They play their first game May 30.

“We have an opportunity to go represent ourselves on a bigger stage for NorCals on Tuesday,” Ayala said. “I love our guys, I love what we’re doing. Let’s go get after it and hopefully we get to play another day.”

Central Catholic third baseman Seth Van Dyk tags out Pioneer runner Carson Timothy in the first inning of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III Championship game at Islander’s Park in Lathrop on Thursday, May 25, 2023. Central Catholic won the game 3-2 in extra innings.
Central Catholic third baseman Seth Van Dyk tags out Pioneer runner Carson Timothy in the first inning of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III Championship game at Islander’s Park in Lathrop on Thursday, May 25, 2023. Central Catholic won the game 3-2 in extra innings.
Central Catholic starting pitcher TP Wentworth delivers a pitch in the first inning of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III Championship game at Islander’s Park in Lathrop on Thursday, May 25, 2023. Central Catholic won the game 3-2 in extra innings.
Central Catholic starting pitcher TP Wentworth delivers a pitch in the first inning of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III Championship game at Islander’s Park in Lathrop on Thursday, May 25, 2023. Central Catholic won the game 3-2 in extra innings.