GOLDEN GATE PARK — It would be hard to fault Washington manager Brian Jesson for being a little emotional after his team’s 1-0 victory over Mission on Thursday afternoon.
Behind a complete game shutout from senior James Monterrosa and key defensive contributions from juniors, a sophomore and even a freshman, the Eagles earned a return to the Academic Athletic Association championship game, led there by a manager who graduated from the school in 1997.
“This is our expectation,” Jesson said. “We’ve had a history of making this game and giving ourselves a chance to win it, and we want to be there.”
The Eagles earned their ticket to Oracle Park next Wednesday and now sit one game away from their first AAA title since 2012 behind a gem from Monterrosa, who held Mission (12-14) hitless after the first inning and didn’t allow a walk until the seventh, striking out five and taking advantage of great defense behind him from freshman shortstop Kayne Moody and first baseman Gilbert Diccion.
“He did a great job today,” Jesson said of his sophomore first baseman. “We don’t win that game without Gilbert over there at first.”
Moody started a 6-4-3 double play after Azaan Lewis was hit by a pitch to open the third inning and made difficult plays on grounders in each of the final three frames to help keep the Bears off the board, while Diccion played far larger than his six-foot frame, displaying tremendous range to handle seven throws at first and keep Washington (12-15) away from committing any errors on the day.
“Kayne and Gilbert have shown tremendous growth throughout the season,” said a very appreciative Monterrosa after the win. “My infield was perfect. We’ve grown so much since the beginning of the season.”
As smooth as Monterrosa was, and as crisp as the Washington defense was, there were chances for the Bears to break through. Back-to-back singles by Azaan Lewis and C.J. Pino started the bottom of the first, and after Akheem Lewis popped out and Will Cohen lined out to right, Asantay Wilson’s infield hit loaded the bases, but Declan Mercos-Weiss popped out to third to end the inning.
It turned out that Wilson’s infield hit would be the last one for Mission on the day. He would lead the seventh inning off with a four-pitch walk, but catcher Josh Wong cut him down with a perfect throw to second on a bang-bang play.
“It was just a good delivery by James,” Wong said. “He got it out quickly and gave me time to throw him out. (Wilson) is pretty fast.”
Mission manager Chris Ayag disputed the call to no avail, but even with the gut punch on the basepaths, the Bears weren’t done. Monterrosa got Mercos-Weiss to ground out to Moody for the second out, but Mission catcher Zeke Bellino walked on a full count, then moved to third base thanks to two wild pitches. With the tying run just 90 feet away, Monterrosa struck Nigel DeRego out to end the game.
“He was just confident,” Wong said of his pitcher. “He knew he had them from the gate.”
The one run the Eagles scored would be enough to back Monterrosa, and while Washington played a spotless game defensively, the Eagles capitalized on a Mission gaffe in the second. Michael Caballero led off with a liner to left that should have gone for a single, but it bounced over the outfielder’s head and ended up going for a double. Niko Lanier’s one-out single put men on the corners, and a Christopher Wong sac fly brought Caballero home.
After Cohen pitched the first two innings, Ayag gave the ball to Pino, his team’s heart and soul, to start the third, and it quickly looked like Pino’s final appearance would be a rough one as the Eagles used a pair of infield hits to load the bases. He managed to buckle down, getting Caballero to hit into a 1-2-3 double play and inducing a popout from Monterrosa, a lifelong friend, to end the inning.
The two had grown up in the same part of Noe Valley, attending church at St. Paul’s, and Monterrosa even drove Pino home from Golden Gate Park following Thursday’s game. As close as the two are, they were firmly committed to their respective programs, with Monterrosa setting his sights on Oracle Park next week after celebrating with his teammates while Pino was left reflecting on his four-year career at Mission, a ride in which the Bears managed to go from an afterthought in Division 2 to a serious title contender.
“We’ve come up so much from being the (garbage) of the league,” Pino said. “I’ve had a great group of teammates help us along the way and it’s just been an unreal experience.”