| August 2, 2023
Photo Credit: Gracie Pugliese
By CCL Reporter Sean Brennan
With the conclusion of the South Wild Card Game, the inaugural CCL 30 Wild Card Round is in the books, and it didn’t disappoint. After the Walnut Creek Crawdads defeated the Lincoln Potters in the North Division’s Wild Card matchup, the Orange County Riptide ended the CCL 30 Postseason’s opening day with a walk-off, come-from-behind victory over the Conejo Oaks, 5-4.
This year, the league adopted a new playoff format consisting of six teams – three from the CCL North Division and three from the CCL South Division – with the second and third-seeded squads squaring off in a single-elimination Wild Card Game. Each Wild Card Champion will advance to the aforementioned Divisional Round, where they will battle their respective division’s top-seeded squad for a berth in the CCL 30 State Championship. In the North vs. South State Championship, the two finalists will compete in a best-of-three series to determine who takes home this year’s title.
Given how evenly these two teams have matched up against one another all summer long, it’s no surprise Tuesday’s contest came down to the wire. The Riptide finished the regular season with a 4-3 advantage in the head-to-head season series, but Conejo had won two most recent games – the only two that came after the CCL 30 Showcase Game on July 12.
After besting the Oaks by a score of 5-4 at Great Park in Irvine, Orange County will visit the one-seeded Arroyo Seco Saints in the South Divisional Round on August 2.
Despite living to see another day, the prospect of the ‘Tide pulling off a victory appeared bleak heading into the bottom of the 5th inning. On the heels of a quiet opening three innings, the Oaks finally broke the scoreless tie in the fourth courtesy of outfielder Christopher Wright (Sonoma State), who drove in catcher Brendan Durfee (Cal Lutheran) with a deep double that reached the left-field wall.
Conejo was far from finished. With one out on the board an inning later, two straight Oaks – outfielders McCabe Moyer (Oregon) and Austin Carrillo (Biola) – reached base via a single and walk respectively, setting the scene for infielder Zach Daudet (Regis). Daudet would seemingly blow the game wide open, clubbing a three-run shot that cleared the left-field wall.
Daudet’s blast ultimately proved a turning point, igniting a fire within the tight-knit Riptide dugout.
“We were kind of screaming as a team,‘punch back, punch back,’” Riptide head coach Connor Spencer recalled. “I just preached with the guys… our focus as a group these last few days needs to be having fun… I told them 10 or 20 years down the line, when you meet up with the guy on your left and the guy on your right, you’re going to talk about these moments in the playoff run that you made and the fun that you had.”
When Orange County needed a jolt, its lineup proved up to the task almost immediately. Outfielder Reese Chapman (Tennessee) drew a bases-loaded walk to break the shutout, and outfielder Patrick Hackworth (UC San Diego) capitalized on a passed ball before infielder Connor McGuire drove in two more runs with his team-leading 27th base knock of the season, tying the game before Conejo’s hitters had a chance to retake the field.
“I tried to preach simplicity with the guys, and they did a really good job that inning of getting guys on, working counts [and] drawing some walks,” Spencer said. “We’ve done a really good job of setting the table here for the past couple of weeks and we’ve been really poor at driving guys in… it was kind of a monkey off our back to get that four-spot there.”
Taking the mound to start the sixth frame was southpaw Ryan Hernandez (Cal Baptist), who succeeded starter Josh Randall (San Diego). In his last five regular season relief appearances, the La Mirada, Calif. native posted a 1.50 ERA and 0.67 WHIP through 6.0 innings, earning his head skipper’s trust in a high-leverage situation, especially against a Conejo starting lineup that featured five lefties.
Hernandez more than proved he was up to the task, going 3.0 innings – his longest outing of the season – while allowing one baserunner and fanning three. The rising senior also set the tone for right-hander Connor Kinney (Undecided), who was able to hold the Oaks scoreless in the game’s final inning and earn win No. 2 on the summer – his first coming from a shutout 4.0-inning start on July 29 in San Luis Obispo.
“We kind of gravitated towards Hernandez because of the job he’s done this season against left-handed hitters,” Spencer said. “And he came in and pounded the zone really well… Seeing the start that [Kinney] had in San Luis Obispo… we have so much confidence in the kid at this point in time…”
With the score knotted up at four heading into the bottom of the ninth, the ‘Tide had a grade-A chance to close the game out right then and there. And Orange County did just that, as Chapman drew another bases-loaded walk to walk off Conejo and extend his team’s season.
“For Chapman to come in and have the discipline to work a walk there, it’s really easy to let things spiral out of control,” Spencer said. “Let me tell you, that kid is really, really good and he’s going to be a really special player someday.”
The Riptide will now set their sights on the Arroyo Seco Saints, the South’s top squad in the postseason. Spencer – who began his CCL coaching career with the Saints – is 6-1 against his former team this summer, an encouraging stat as Orange County takes on a team that is 11-3 in its last 14 games. This red-hot stretch includes a win over the Riptide on July 26, the most recent head-to-head meeting.
“It’s all about,‘What have you done for me lately’, and Arroyo Seco took the last game from us and it’s because they are blazing hot,” Spencer said. “They have the ability to put up those wild crooked numbers, we have to prevent those crooked numbers. It’s okay if we go one run here, one run there, but if they get a four, five or six-spot, we’re going to be in trouble. We’ve got to try and prevent that as much as humanly possible.”
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