Jack Winkler stands in on March 10, 2019 against UC Riverside at Benedetti Diamond in San Francisco, Calif. (Christina Leung/USF Athletics)

USF Dons baseball sweeps St. Mary’s for first time in 12 years

While celebrating Autism Awareness Day, USF comes up with walk-off win in 12th to sweep Gaels

BENEDETTI DIAMOND — It’s no coincidence that on Autism Awareness Day, the San Francisco Dons baseball team drew inspiration from some of their most valued fans to withstand multiple gut punches and beat the St. Mary’s Gaels 10-9 in 12 innings to wrap up a three-game sweep of their WCC rivals.

“It’s huge to have the support,” said RJ Cordeiro, who homered in the win. “In the 10th, 11th inning, when you’re coming up on the fifth hour of the game, you start getting tired and you hear John telling you to pick it up, as well as all the other fans.”

Die-hard fan John Hammond, who lives with autism, kept spirits high in the Dons dugout by encouraging the team through adversity as St. Mary’s (20-15, 6-6 West Coast Conference) took the lead in the top of the seventh on a three-run homer, went back ahead in the eighth on a controversial call that led to USF head coach Nino Giarratano’s ejection and then scored three in the ninth to re-tie the game after the Dons had scored four of their own in the bottom of the eighth.

It added up to a wild mess of a game that finally ended on Jack Winkler’s walk-off double in the 12th, scoring Tyler Villaroman from first to sweep the Gaels for the first time since May 11-13, 2007 at old Benedetti Diamond. It was a remarkable weekend for Villaroman, who went 4-for-6 with a walk on Sunday and 8-for-14 overall over the course of the sweep.

“He just works so hard every day, and I’m happy to see it pay off for him,” Winkler said.

It was Villaroman’s one-out walk against reliever Dalton Ponce that brought Winkler up, and he drilled a 2-2 offering off the high wall in right-center, allowing Villaroman to easily beat the throw home.

“There was a lot of energy in the crowd and the fans never left,” Winkler said. “It was great.”

Though Giarratano had been ejected in the eighth after the call at the plate that put the Gaels up 6-5, he watched the rest of the game from the broadcast in his office.

“I just try to calm down a little bit and be a fan for a while,” he said. “Those are great opportunities for these other guys to coach and our players to play.”

Even with tensions running high, he was fully able to appreciate the impact of Autism Awareness Day. Team mom Deb Peralta, who has two sons on the autism spectrum and has been affiliated with the squad for 16 years, has now put the event on for seven seasons.

“Just a wonderful day to do that for Deb and just have that day here at USF is great,” Giarratano said. “We celebrated some great people.”

Amidst all of that, there was a fantastic ballgame going on, with the lead changing hands multiple times in the late innings. After Julian Washburn held the Gaels to just one run after they loaded the bases in the top of the fifth and San Francisco (21-14, 10-5) immediately got that run back on a Riley Helland RBI single, things seemed to be secure.

The seventh inning completely flipped the game around, with Andrew Shebloski cutting the lead to 4-2 on a two-out single and Gabe Giosso giving the visitors their first lead of the entire series with a three-run homer to left-center.

The Dons quickly knotted it back up in the bottom half, with Winkler and Helland sparking the rally on back-to-back one-out singles. Jonathan Allen’s grounder advanced the runners, and Robert Emery’s laser comebacker was deflected by pitcher Michael Hobbs into no-man’s land, allowing Winkler to score the tying run.

A wild pitch put two men in scoring position, but Jacob Munoz fouled out to end the inning. St. Mary’s would quickly make San Francisco pay for not striking for more in the seventh, with back-to-back singles by Marc Goulart and Diaz leading Giarratano to go to his closer, Joey Steele. Jack Murphy singled to right on Steele’s third offering, and though the relay throw easily beat pinch-runner Jack McCarthy to the plate, he was ruled safe as home plate umpire Shaun Lampe deemed Emery to have blocked the plate, which drew Giarratano’s fury as the throw was clearly the only reason Emery was in McCarthy’s lane.

It was a peculiar reversal of a call from the first inning, in which Helland’s relay throw nailed Gio Diaz at the plate, a play where Gaels head coach Eric Valenzuela unsuccessfully argued that Emery had blocked the lane.

Steele managed to retire the last two batters of the eighth, and the Dons not only got the run back in the bottom half, but took a 9-6 lead. Villaroman’s one-out single tied it back up after an infield hit by Nick Yovetich to begin the inning, a Winkler double put the hosts back in front and both Villaroman and Winkler managed to score on a deep sac fly by Helland.

It was such a tumultuous and eventful game that even that two-run sac fly could easily be lost in the commotion. Cordeiro’s second homer of the year — a two-out shot in the fourth — was a remarkable feat for a player who was in an 0-for-39 slump at this time last year, was also reduced to nothing more than a footnote.

“It’s just figuring out more of what I want to do with each pitch, and I’m feeling pretty comfortable right now,” Cordeiro said of his two-out, fourth-inning blast. “My first at-bat, I worked it full and was able to see pretty much everything had, so by the second time I came up I knew more or less what he had.”

That homer came made it 3-0 after the Dons had notched a pair in the prior inning, getting back-to-back RBI doubles from Helland and Allen.

That was all a distant memory as Steele returned to the mound in the ninth, but things quickly turned south for him. Shebloski bunted his way on, taking advantage of the spot that was vacated after defensive stalwart Riki Urata was replaced by a pinch-hitter in the prior inning. The lead was down to two after hits by Giosso and Eddie Haus, and Kyle Velazquez doubled into the left-field corner, scoring both Giosso and Haus to tie the game.

A walk to the next batter, Daniel Mendez, left acting head coach Troy Nakamura to hand the ball to Alex Pham, who had gone for 3 2/3 innings in Saturday’s win. He promptly got Diaz to fly out and induced an inning-ending double play from Murphy to keep the game tied.

“You hope not to go in because you believe in the guy before you to get the job done, but I was ready,” Pham said.

Though the Dons squandered a bases-loaded chance in the 10th, Pham took care of the next two frames with ease, and the offense finally rewarded him when Winkler came through with the winning double to seal the sweep.

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