SURPRISE — The players for the Gila Ridge baseball team hugged each other, their eyes red and glassy from tears.
In terms of losses, there aren't many as heartbreaking as the No. 8 Hawks' 6-5 defeat to No. 4 Tucson-Sahuaro in an elimination game of the Arizona Interscholastic Association Division II State Tournament on Saturday afternoon at Surprise Stadium.
After scrapping three runs off one of the best pitchers in the state in the top of the seventh, the Hawks could only get one out in the bottom half and the Cougars scored three of their own – the last coming on a walk-off single to left-centerfield by junior Justin Hammergren.
“You feel like you finally turned the page and got to them and then you can't get anybody out,” Gila Ridge coach Greg Osowski said.
Gila Ridge junior ace Victor Castro picked up his only loss of the season, pitching 6 1/3 innings and allowing 11 hits, three walks and struck out two on 102 pitches. Castro also pitched a complete game on 104 pitches in the Hawks' 5-1 second round win over Sunrise Mountain on Tuesday.
For the Cougars, Alex Verdugo improved to 10-0 on the season with two innings of relief.
“On Tuesday he threw 93 pitches – we kept him to no more than 85 all year,” Sahuaro coach Mark Chandler said. “He told us yesterday that his arm was just a little bit sore. At the bottom of the fifth, he told us, ‘I can close this.'”
But the Hawks made the Sahuaro star look ordinary in the top of the seventh.
Trailing 3-2 coming into the final inning, the Hawks ripped off four straight hits and scored three runs – the first time all season that Verdugo had given up more than two earned runs in a game.
Senior leadoff hitter Bobby Mena opened up with a single up the middle and senior Gus Nubes followed with a routine single to right field.
Then things got crazy.
Nubes' single got past Sahuaro right fielder Vinnie Tarantola and rolled all the way to the fence – which allowed Mena and Nubes to round the bases and score to give the Hawks their first lead of the game.
“That was the spark for this team,” Osowski said. “The energy level on this side of the field was crazy.”
Gila Ridge junior Marco Jaime and senior Irving Lopez both followed with singles of their own and Jaime later scored on a sacrifice fly to right field by Castro to put the Hawks up 5-3.
But they couldn't put the Cougars away.
Sahuaro rattled off three straight singles to narrow the lead and Verdugo tied it with a one-out RBI single down the third base line.
After Castro barely missed with an 0-2 breaking ball, Hammergren sent the next pitch into the gap to end the Hawks' season.
“I've seen him all year bulldog it up when he gets into those situations. There's nobody better that I want on the mound,” Osowski said of Castro. “I thought we had him on the pitch before, that's what made me so mad. (Hawk catcher) Austin (Browning) didn't move his glove and the ump called it a ball and the next pitch he hits into the gap.”
Mena, Nubes and Castro all had two hits apiece for the Hawks and senior designated hitter Omar Ortega had a two-run double in the top of the fourth. For the Cougars, Verdugo, Hammergren, Jake Northrup and Frankie Silva all had two hits off Castro.
The Hawks certainly had chances to score against Sahuaro, but they left a runner on third base in five of the innings.
In the top of the fourth – after Ortega's double – Gila Ridge senior Zach Taylor hit a line drive to center but Verdugo came up with a phenomenal diving catch and doubled Ortega off second base to end the inning.
The following inning, with Nubes on third base, Lopez hit a hard line drive to first but Tarantola came up with another diving catch.
“We were getting runners on base and making things happen,” Lopez said. “We saw that we were leaving runners on base, we just couldn't capitalize.”
An emotional Lopez called this the hardest loss he's ever had. For Osowski, the loss was a tough end to the most successful season in Gila Ridge history.
“I'm proud of these guys. They're the first team to win 20 games. We had a good showing. We played some really good teams. They have nothing to be ashamed of.”