Timely hitting, vigilance on the base paths and outstanding fielding by their shortstop helped propel the Sonoma Grape Crushers to a 4-1 victory over the in Saturday evening’s game at in Healdsburg.
“Damn, we lost again,” said Owls Manager David Hunter.
The game began auspiciously for Healdsburg (1-5) with a three-up, three-down top of the first, and an RBI double by Catcher Jacob Welch off Sonoma starter Jesse Asher in the bottom of the inning that put the Owls up 1-0. But that was the only run they’d get across against Sonoma (4-1), with future scoring opportunities stymied by good pitching and superb defense.
“(Asher) was definitely hittable, nothing fancy, but he was throwing strikes all game,” Welch said.
In the bottom of the third, with Healdsburg still leading 1-0, the Owls had the bases loaded with two outs when Justin Hergurth hit a hard, bounding groundball up the middle that appeared headed for center field.
But what would have almost certainly been a two-run single became the final out when Crushers shortstop Travis Mather made a full extension dive to snare the ball and then flipped it backhanded to the second baseman for the force out.
Mather played stellar defense all game, including another reaching grab on a pop-up to shallow center that he caught in full sprint with his back to the infield. His masterpiece to end the third inning was perhaps the game’s key play and turning point, as Sonoma followed it with a run in the top of the fourth and never looked back.
Crushers right fielder Jason Buhagiar began the inning with a towering drive to left-center that one-hopped the fence near the 433-foot marker for a double. The left field fence at Recreation Park is only 280 feet down the line; had Buhagiar pulled the ball a little bit more, it would have certainly left the yard.
Ultimately, Buhagiar found his way home with cunning on the base paths. He took second on a wild pitch; then, with one out, Owls second baseman Peter Rosales made a great play on a line drive to his left, diving to catch the ball for the second out. But, just as it seemed Rosales’ sprawling catch would prevent another run, the ball skipped out of his possession as he stood up and tried to transfer it from his glove to his bare hand. Buhagiar, who had retreated to third base on the line drive, broke for home as Rosales went to grab the ball off the ground, beating Rosales’ throw home by a step and putting the Crushers up 2-1.
The Crushers added two more runs in the top of the fifth on two RBI hits with two outs. The first was a single by Andrew Losk that scored Danny Sargiotto and brought designated hitter Gabe Guzman to the plate. With the outfield playing shallow against Sonoma’s shortest player, Guzman hit an RBI double to left-center field that perfectly split the defenders and landed just beyond the reach of the center fielder Michael Hutchinson as he sprinted back and to his right.
The Owls has their last real scoring opportunity in the bottom of the sixth against pitcher Matt Simpson, who relieved Asher to start the inning. Welch and Rosales started the inning with two straight singles, but Simpson then induced a 4-6-3 double play and struck out Will Brasher on a high fastball.
From that point on, Simpson was lights out, with Owls hitters appearing to have a hard time reading his breaking pitches as twilight set in. The game ended when Simpson induced another groundball double play and then struck out pinch hitter Max Rubenstein. The strikeout was fourth in four innings for Simpson, who gave up only one more hit after yielding singles to the first two batters he faced.
Asher got the win for Sonoma, going five innings and yielding one earned run on four hits, with two walks and five strikeouts. Owls starter Brian Meyer took the loss, throwing seven innings and surrendering three runs – two of them earned – on six hits, with two walks and five strikeouts. Sonoma also added a fourth run in the eighth against reliever Ryan Bundger.
“It was a good game overall – well pitched by both sides,” Hunter said. “We just have to get more timely hits.
" We had opportunities in the first inning, and we could have scored more runs in the second," Hunter said. "But you have to give them credit -- their defense was really good, they played smart and were heads up on the base paths.”