SCOTTSDALE — With a Phoenix Greenway run already across the plate, Nogales starter Anthony Martinez induced a towering Demons’ pop-up over the mound to end the first inning — or at least it should have been the third out.
A combination of the late-afternoon sun at Salt River Fields and an inability to hear third baseman Angel Chavez calling him off resulted in the ball falling just out of reach of the pitcher’s glove, plopping harmfully onto the grass.
The routine became difficult during the Apaches’ 8-0 loss to Greenway in the Division II state final, as the normally dominant Nogales rotation became uncharacteristically pedestrian.
“It got away early,” coach O.J. Favela said about the performance of his five-man rotation. “But those pitchers have done an awesome job all year.”
Aside from senior Julian Vega, who struck out three in two hitless innings, and sophomore Angel Zuniga, who closed out the final inning with two straight strikeouts, the Nogales staff struggled with its control.
Martinez, senior Alan Sinouhui and junior Isaac Lopez walked five batters, hit another with an errant pitch and allowed six hits and eight runs in three combined innings.
Getting all five pitchers some work was the plan from the start, Favela said, as Nogales wanted to exploit matchups and give the Greenway hitters a new look each time through the rotation.
“Just give us six outs,” Favela said to Martinez and the rest of the staff.
The execution just wasn’t there.
But whether the problems boiled down to struggles on the mound, sloppy defense or hot Greenway bats, it doesn’t change the pitching staff’s importance to Nogales’ historic year.
Even in one of their worst outings — Nogales allowed eight or more runs only three times all year — a pitcher was able to surprise Favela.
Vega’s ability to stop the bleeding after a five-run second was unexpected, especially after the senior was the least-used during the playoff run.
“It was great, that’s what I wanted — to pick the team up,” Vega said. “Unfortunately we couldn’t come back after that.”
Entering the season, the coaches worried pitching would be this team’s downfall. Instead, the staff allowed 3.1 runs per game before Tuesday, and a third of them were unearned.
And strong, consistent pitching propelled the Apaches through the loser’s bracket and into Nogales’ first finals appearance since 1981.
“They’ve stepped up all year,” Favela said. “These five guys, all they do is pitch. They don’t hit, they don’t do anything else.”
Rarely would a team send out a pitcher with the highest ERA and WHIP of a five-man rotation to start a championship game. But most teams don’t have the depth of Nogales.
“We were comfortable with any guy we rolled out there for the start,” Favela said.