Valley Strong Park has not been really kind to Firebaugh High baseball coach Alex Gutierrez.
His Eagles won a Valley title at Visalia’s minor league venue back in 2015. The Eagles then returned in 2016 and 2017, only to be turned away, including a heartbreaking 5-4 defeat to Immanuel-Reedley after taking a 4-1 lead into the seventh inning.
So you have to figure that Gutierrez was heading into last Friday’s Div. V Section game with a little trepidation. Throw in a serious bout of food poisoning plus a strong opponent in East Bakersfield and you have to think that Gutierrez was filled with angst as his team took to the ball diamond.
But when you have two solid senior starters in Manuel Bautista and Isaiah Leyva, Gutierrez’s stomach problems was soon put at ease.
Bautista, a 4-year varsity player, pitched a complete game to lead Firebaugh over the Blades, 4-1.
Bautista, who allowed only three hits while striking out four, also chipped in with his bat and his glove.
In the bottom of the sixth inning with Firebaugh holding a precarious 3-1 lead, pinch-hitter Aryan Aguayo was hit by a pitch to start out the inning. Ryan Luna entered as a pitch runner, and he moved to second base on a fielder’s choice grounder. Bautista then blasted a double over the Blade centerfielder, scoring Luna and giving the Eagles a much-needed insurance run.
Then Bautista flashed the leather from the mound to close out the Blades in the top of the seventh. He gloved a smashed grounder up the middle by Ryan Zimmerman for the first out. The next batter, Kalay Santiago, attempted a drag bunt that Bautista snagged for the second out. The final batter grounded to second base for the final out and the celebration for the Eagles started.
With the score tied 1-1, Firebaugh scored two runs in the fourth inning on back-to-back singles by Charley Guzman and Kevin Arias.
Firebaugh’s run through the playoffs followed a formula of solid pitching from Bautista and Leyva, timely hitting, and excellent defense.
The defense came into play in the second inning when Blade batter Esaiah Santiago roped a single with one out. TJ Santiago followed with a line drive straight down left field that banged against the fence. Eagle left fielder Sebastian Perez picked the ball up bare handed and fired a strike to third base to nail Santiago.
Firebaugh finished with six hits, but it was the consistent pitching of Bautista and the great defense that were the difference, according to Gutierrez.
“We left some runners on base,” he explained. “But we got the timely hits and our defense was great. We actually worked on that play with Sebastian. We have experience in this park and know the peculiar nuances. Sebastian really came through.”
In their four playoff wins, Firebaugh never scored more than four runs, but Gutierrez said that when you have leaders like Bautista and Leyva, they can put the team on their backs.
“Isaiah and Manuel are just like Jason Allen and Sal Alaniz back in 2015,” he said. “They were not going to be denied. They were not going to fall short.”