BENEDETTI DIAMOND — After the handshakes, after the fist pumps and the dramatic seventh-inning escape act, the Sacred Heart Cathedral baseball team chanted the name of a player who didn’t get a single at-bat.
As catcher Leo Kikuchi — who played on junior varsity as a junior last season, and even now is a part-time contributor — came off the field, it wasn’t the name of the Irish’s ace Conner LaChapelle — who got the game-winning hit — that was on his teammates tongues, or the name of shortstop Keshawn Ogans, their Cal-bound star. It was Kikuchi, the backup catcher.
In a 2-1 pitcher’s duel in Sacred Heart Cathedral’s Central Coast Section second-round playoff win over Willow Glen on Monday, it was Kikuchi’s block of home plate in the top of the second that proved to be the biggest play of the game, quashing a would-be rally and helping send the Irish on to face No. 1 seed Monterey on Wednesday.
“Leo started the season clearly as the backup, and he played JVs last year as a junior, so I could tell you, the one thing about Leo, there’s no change in his demeanor from when he plays and hits, and when he plays and doesn’t hit, to when he doesn’t play,” said head coach Brian Morgan. “[Starting catcher Diego Padilla] got sick, and Leo was able to catch a little bit, and he looks pretty good, every time. We’ve kind of been splitting the duties back there the last month.”
The Irish (17-12) will face Monterey in the CCS semifinals on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Washington Park in Santa Clara. They’ve come a long way from their regular-season-ending 21-1 loss to Archbishop Mitty on May 7.
“Last week was horrendous,” Kikuchi said. “It was embarrassing. We didn’t want to go back to school. We got so much crap from all of our classmates. I didn’t really want to go to school after that day, but we beat Aragon, and we’re on to Monterrey. Hopefully, not a one-run game, because this is way too stressful for me.”
Raised to be a backstop by his father — who played baseball in Japan — Kikuchi was key in keeping his pitchers’ composure, delivering textbook block after textbook block on breaking balls in the turf at the University of San Francisco’s Benedetti Diamond. He was the player the Irish elected to use the designated hitter for (“I’m used to that now,” he said), but he didn’t need his bat to make an impact.
In the top of the first with two on and one out, the Rams’ first baseman Arthur Jones sent a grounder up the first base line. Irish first baseman Lucas Kelly looked to start a double play, and erased a runner at second, but Ogans’ throw back to LaChapelle covering first was off line, allowing Jacob Soria — aboard on a walk — to score.
Sacred Heart Cathedral responded in the bottom of the frame with a pop-fly double down the right field line by Ogans, a single by Kelly and an RBI ground out to third by Danny Hinderliter. The Irish, though, after a Raphael Cervantez single, couldn’t add on, as Lucas Herrera grounded into an inning-ending double play.
A leadoff double in the second by Willow Glen third baseman Ryan Davis and a sacrifice bunt put a man at third with one out for second baseman Jack Calloway, who sent a smash to the left side. Ogans ranged to his right, backhanded the shot and quickly fired home.
“I saw a glimpse of where [Davis] was, he was halfway,” Ogans said. “I knew I had a shot.”
Kikuchi — raised to be a catcher by his father, a former semipro catcher in Japan — negotiated the dropped bat in the batter’s box and stacked his shin guards in front of the plate, catching Ogans’ throw and tagging out Davis.
“It was a tough play for Keshawn, he gets the backhander, and all I did was catch the ball and tag him, so it was all Keshawn; none of it was me,” Kikuchi said. “That was all Keshawn. That was Keshawn’s play.”
“[Kikuchi] has a wonderful spirit,” Ogans said. “That’s what you appreciate most about him, his competitive spirit. He’s a big part of our team. He’s a real good catcher, and he just makes plays on the field and controls the defense. Just got to love him. I knew he was going to lay the tag down.”
LaChapelle then caught shortstop Riley Stewart looking at strike three to end the threat.
A LaChapelle baserunning gaffe in the bottom of the frame — he led off with a double and tried to take third on a grounder to short — cut off another Irish scoring chance, and Sacred Heart Cathedral left two men aboard.
LaChapelle got a 1-2-3 third and worked around a walk and a pair of two-out singles in the fourth, but once again, the Irish left a pair of runners aboard in the bottom of the inning. Irish reliever Adrian Gonzalez retired the next six men in order to preserve the tie.
In the bottom of the sixth, Cervantez worked a four-pitch walk, and advanced to second on a bunt by Herrera. LaChapelle re-entered, and laced a 1-1 grounder to the right side for an RBI single.
Jaime Gomez came on to pitch the top of the seventh, and walked Ostrowski after an eight-pitch battle. A wild pitch on a bunt attempt by Calloway moved pinch runner Harrison Occumen to third, before head coach Morgan elected for a mid-at-bat pitching change, bringing on first-round hero Owen Stevenson.
Stevenson pitched the seventh and eighth innings of last week’s rain-suspended game against Aragon, and came on to strike out Calloway on a fouled bunt. He then got a grounder to third by Stewart, and finished things with a tapper to second, bringing Kikuchi out of the crouch for a celebration.
“That felt amazing,” Stevenson said. “That was even more hype than the last one.”
While Stevenson got the high-fives and the fist pumps, it was Kikuchi who got the impromptu chants once Willow Glen had left the field.
“His energy is contagious,” Morgan said. “It’s a great story, because it’s what high school sports are supposed to be about … He just enjoys playing baseball. They know that he’s gone from a backup position to playing, and the key was, the guy who shares the time with him was rooting for him just as much. It’s how it’s supposed to work. They play the hardest position and they play it the right way.”