— Ryan Gorcey (@RyanGorcey) March 17, 2019
BENEDETTI DIAMOND — Having fouled off a curveball to open his fifth at-bat of the day on Sunday, University of San Francisco first baseman Jacob Munoz stepped out of the box and remembered a SnapChat conversation he’d had with his current teammates and former teammates from the College of Marin.
Munoz thought back to Saturday, when, after losing the middle game of a three-game series against Portland, he’d sent this message: “It’s just so much easier to play baseball if you just treat it like Wiffle Ball. Just try and have as much fun as you can.”
After fouling off another off-speed pitch, Munoz was down 0-2, with the Dons trailing 4-3, with two outs and the bases loaded in the eighth. With his teammates barking, whooping and hollering his nickname, “Moony,” Munoz relaxed, and drove a fastball back up the middle to bring home two runs to spur a 5-4 win.
“I came to a realization,” Munoz said. “I was talking to coach G [head coach Nino Giarratano], very beginning of the year, when we first met each other, about how I can get drafted, how can I do this, how can I do that. I was just thinking it would be so much easier if I tried to have as much fun as possible, no matter what was happening.”
The Dons (12-7, 2-1 in West Coast Conference) had halted the Pilots’ seven-game winning streak in the weekend opener on Friday, but after dropping Saturday’s decision, they were at risk of dropping their conference-opening series, and were forced to put sophomore reliever Alex Pham on the mound for Sunday’s finale.
No. 2 starter Grant Nechak went down the week before the start of the season with an elbow injury, and was supposed to come back against the Pilots. Instead, his comeback was pushed back to next weekend. No. 3 starter Landen Bourassa went down with Tommy John in the third inning of his first start at San Diego. No. 4 starter Daniel Slominski also went down with an elbow, but won’t be back for two weeks, meaning the Dons have had to piece together a rotation behind arguably the strongest starter in the WCC, Friday’s winner Riley Ornido.
“If we can get those guys healthy, maybe Pham stays in the rotation, and one of those guys — Nechak or Slominski — goes into short relief for us, but we’re waiting for those guys to come back and give us a boost,” Giarratano said. “Pham, if he stays in the back end of the bullpen, he’s fabulous.”
Before this season, Pham had a total of three starts at the college level, all during his freshman season last year. His longest? It came on March 8 of last season, when he went 3.2 innings against Xavier. The longest outing of his career was a six-inning, 11-strikeout relief performance in last week’s 13-inning win over UC Riverside. Coming into the game, he had a sparkling 1.53 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 17 2/3 innings in seven relief appearances.
On Sunday, he had the stuff to get by — his curve, slider and change which he used to get six of his eight strikeouts — but his fastball stayed mostly over the middle of the plate. That, combined with his breaking pitches flattening out in the third, led to plenty of offense for Portland.
After allowing a booming two-run home run to right by Tracye Tammaro, he surrendered a 1-1 shot off the right center field wall by ninth-place hitter Dutton Elske. After a smash through the left side by Gabe Skoro and a sinking liner to left to load the bases by Chad Stephens, he got a run-scoring double play, but then allowed a deep drive high off the left field wall by third baseman Daniel Lopez to bring home the fourth run of the inning.
“He’s a lot more aggressive as a later guy because he can let it go, but today, it looked like he was conserving energy in the third inning,” Giarratano said. “I think that’s the reason he gives up those runs.”
Pham was able to get right, though, striking out the side in both the fourth and fifth, working around a walk and a double, finishing with eight strikeouts and two walks in his career-high-tying six innings of work.
San Francisco slowly crept back, as Pham found his footing and reliever Julian Washburn held the line with 2.1 innings of scoreless relief, allowing a hit and two walks while striking out two.
The Dons got a run back in the bottom of the fourth when when R.J. Cordeiro cashed in a one-out walk to Jonathan Allen with a double high off the netting in right. San Francisco tacked on another when right fielder Nick Yovetich dropped a 1-1 flare into left center field with two outs in the sixth, bringing home Riley Helland, aboard on a one-out HBP.
Helland himself then cut the lead to 4-3 with a solo shot off the top of the net with one out in the bottom of the eighth.
Then, a two-out single up the middle by catcher Robert Emery gave San Francisco new life, with the bench hanging on the railing and yapping during and after every pitch. Right fielder Nick Yovetich drew an eight-pitch walk, and pinch hitter Brandon Greim ripped the first pitch he saw from reliever Connor Knutson up the first base line.
Tammaro had trouble fielding the ball back of the bag, and bobbled it ever so briefly, allowing Greim to reach to load the bases.
“I was going up there looking first-pitch fastball, and that’s exactly what I got,” Greim said. “The guys brought great energy, and it makes it that much easier to go in there when you feel like they’ve got your back, no matter what.”
Munoz — at that point 2-for-4 — fouled off the first two offerings before punching his decisive single up the middle, bringing home Yovetich and pinch runner Jacob Westerman. Greim was hosed trying to advance to third, but only just after the run had scored.
“I strayed from my approach in my fourth at-bat, and tried to do a little too much,” Munoz said. “I reminded myself every pitch that I wanted to stay in the middle of the field, middle-away, because that’s where they usually go on me. I just tried to get a couple pitches I could do it with. I fouled off a curveball and a changeup, and eventually, I got a fastball.”
It was one of seven hits the Dons had in 13 two-out at-bats.
The rally prevented the Dons from dropping their first WCC series of the season, and gave them seven wins in their last nine games. They’re now 10-1 at home, 6-0 in one-run games. San Francisco has also now won nine games coming from behind.
“Not good for the hair, not good for the ticker,” Giarratano said, “but it’s better than not coming back from behind.”