With her team down one in the bottom of the ninth inning, all Aly Waltman was looking for was a chance.
The Los Banos senior was set to receive a scholarship on Monday night, but opted to skip the beginning of the dinner to be a part of what was potentially her final high school softball game.
As the one-game playoff with Pacheco to decide who earned the Western Athletic Conference’s third and final playoff spot wore on into extra innings, it became evident that making the scholarship ceremony would be difficult. The sacrifice proved worthwhile as a two-out error on a pop up that landed five feet in front of home plate, brought Waltman to the dish with runners at the corners. As she’s done so many times throughout her career, Waltman delivered for the Tigers, belting a fly ball that hit off the top of the left-field fence and bounced over for a walk-off, three-run home run.
The wild 4-2 victory locked up LB’s third straight trip to the postseason and brought the Panthers’ season to a heartbreaking close.
“I think my heart stopped when the pop up hit the turf,” Waltman said. “I was just so happy to keep my season going. I had no idea if it had enough to get over the fence when I hit it. I was watching the ball the whole way. The first feeling was relief that we’d won and we get to keep playing.
“I’m just really happy that my team came out and played for me and our coaches.”
It was a brutal finish for Pacheco starting pitcher Autumn Randles, who had done everything she could to keep the Panthers’ season alive.
The junior ace limited the Tigers’ potent offense to four unearned runs on four hits while striking out eight in 8 2/3 innings. She’d been at her best with people on base, holding LB to 0 for 10 with runners in scoring position before Waltman broke through in the ninth. Randles (2 for 2) helped her own cause at the plate as well, twice putting the Panthers in front with RBI singles in the second and ninth innings.
She singled home Lexy Parra in the top of the ninth to give Pacheco a 2-1 lead.
The Tigers answered right back with a two-out rally in the bottom half of the inning. Jasmine Sanchez worked a walk and then moved up to third base when Victoria Cotinas’ pop up in front of the plate wasn’t caught. That set the stage for Waltman’s heroics.
“She was due,” Los Banos coach Mike Greenwood said. “All year she’s hit the top of the fence. She hit the top again and this time it went over instead of coming back. We’d moved her to the two spot last Friday, and she came to me today and said, ‘Coach I think I want to go back to leadoff.’ I guess she knew. It was her time.
“You have to give credit to Pacheco. They played a heck of a game. Our girls played with heart today. I’m proud of them.”
Kiara Azevedo matched Randles pitch for pitch to keep the Tigers in the contest. The southpaw allowed just three hits through the first eight innings, before being touched up for a trio of singles in the ninth. Azevedo struck out seven and helped force extra innings, scoring the tying run in the bottom of the sixth when an errant throw on a double-play attempt sailed into right field.
“(Autumn and Kiara) both deserved to win today,” Pacheco coach Charlie Pikas said. “It’s fun, because it’s what we’ve come to expect from them. Even when they were 10 years old and playing on the same team, we knew they were going to be good pitchers. They turned in three excellent performances against each other this year and we get one more year to enjoy watching them go head to head.
“That last ball that hit the turf is the one that’s going to stand out in everyone’s mind, but we made lots of little defensive mistakes in this game the could have been the difference. There were three fly balls that I felt should have been caught. It’s just a shame to get down to the last game of the season and have those mistakes cost you.”