Through five innings on Tuesday, Santa Clara Westside looked poised to earn a berth in the Section-5 Championship. Ace pitcher Austin Sands had twirled a shutout through five innings, striking out nine batters and allowing just one hit — an infield single in the fourth.
Offensively Westside managed to scrape across two runs in the top of the third. With two outs and runners at the corners, speedster Sal Espinoza scored from third on a double steal after the throw went down to second and eventually into center field. Sam Sylvia subsequently added an RBI single for an insurance run.
Unfortunately for Westside, the bottom of the sixth inning would not be kind. After retiring the leadoff man, the next three batters all reached base. A double and two singles helped Gilroy cut the lead in half at 2-1.
At this point, with runners at first and second, Westside Manager Jerry Vignato elected to bring Sylvia into pitch. The first batter after the pitching change would walk to load the bases, and then a wild pitch saw the tying run come into score. At this point Joey Schlesselman took over on the mound, but a base hit to right field allowed Gilroy to walk off with a 3-2 victory.
“Austin was dealing tonight, he was pitching a helluva game. He had them off balance,” remarked Vignato after the game. “You have to tip your cap to Gilroy though, they swung the bats well at the right time with guys on base.”
“He did a really great job,” added Espinoza on Sands’ pitching performance. “If we didn’t have him there is no way we would even be at this level. He’s been great from the first game all the way up until the end.”
Espinoza may not have been the biggest star on this Westside All Star team, but his lightning speed as the No. 9 hitter often helped set the table for the top of the order to follow behind him. Not to mention, his wheels in the outfield helped his pitchers out as he showed off tremendous range throughout the two tournaments.
In Tuesday’s season-ending loss, Espinoza made a running catch at full speed going towards right center to end the third inning. At the time, it kept a no-hitter intact for Sands.
“Sal is amazingly fast, that’s one of the big reasons we brought him on this team,” chimed Vignato. “There were some people who questioned his selection, but his speed really helped us have a balanced team. Speed kills at this level and he had hit very well against my team all season. There was no doubt in Vinny’s [Vincent Santiago] nor my mind when we were putting this team together that Sal was going to be one of our guys and you can see why. He caused terror on the basepaths and will catch every ball that is hit to him.”
For this group of kids, it was there final game as Little Leaguers.
Espinoza eloquently summed up what he will remember most when looking back in the future at this year’s run. “I think I’ll remember the winning, but also how we had fun and really played as a team. We had fun together, being friends on and off the field and laughing with one another.”