| August 7, 2021
LINCOLN, CA – In the final game of their 100th Anniversary Season, the No. 1 Healdsburg Prune Packers knocked off the No. 4 San Luis Obispo Blues to win the 2021 CCL State Championship, 8-7. In the eyes of Packers Head Coach Joey Gomes, there was only one way to describe the moment.
“It’s magical,” Gomes said. “Just absolutely magical to do it in the 100th year.”
Healdsburg third baseman Braydon Runion (Texas Tech) earned Offensive MVP honors for the tournament, going 10-for-17 (.588) with one home run and nine RBI across four games. Charlie Hurley (Southern California) won Pitcher of the Tournament after allowing just three hits and no runs while striking out six in Healdsburg’s 12-1 win over the No. 2 Arroyo Seco Saints in the semifinals.
The Blues made a strong push early. With two outs in the first inning, Mason Grotto (Fresno State) and AJ Esperanza (Cuesta) walked in consecutive at bats. Trey Clarkson (Utah) stepped to the plate and rocked one over the left field wall to make it 3-0. It was Clarkson’s fourth home run of the playoffs.
With the Packers going down early, Francis McDonough (Wichita State) entered the game in the second and struck out two Blues to keep Healdsburg within three.
The Packers parlayed McDonough’s dominant inning into their first offensive burst. Austin Bost (Texas A&M) got on with a double, and Cam Blake (Texas Rio Grande Valley) sent a two-run blast to right field. Torin Montgomery (Missouri) singled in the next at bat, and Runion got him home to tie the game 3-3 entering the bottom of the third.
“[Gomes] preaches ‘heartbeat,’ just trying to control your nerves and adrenaline,” Runion said. “I get some 0-2 counts, and I’ll just step out, regroup and just say, ‘heartbeat,’ and then just get right back in there and do my job.”
The Blues loaded the bases in the fourth with two outs, giving Ruben Mercado (San Jose State) a prime opportunity to retake the lead. He worked an 0-2 count up to 2-2, but McDonough won the battle. The righty struck out Mercado, and was so fired up that he was barking in celebration all the way back to the dugout.
“It’s a cliché with championship groups, but these guys love the game so much,” Gomes said. “That McDonough kid, I really look forward to following him when he goes back to Wichita State. What a special arm.”
The Packers fed off that energy right away, as Ryan Targac (Texas A&M) led off the fifth with a solo home run to put them in the lead. Blake followed up with his third hit of the night, and Montgomery walked to get a second runner on. Runion then made the game 5-3, ripping the first pitch he saw into right center field.
The Packers loaded the bases after that, and this time it was Zac McCleve (Utah) who got out of the jam. McCleve struck out Ian McMillan (Houston) with a nasty off-speed pitch outside the zone to end the inning.
The Blues responded quickly in the bottom of the frame. Esperanza drove home Grotto after the third baseman’s leadoff single, cutting the deficit to one.
In the sixth with two outs, Mercado doubled to tie the game 5-5, scoring Ryan Cermak (Illinois State). The tie didn’t last long though, as McMillan took the lead back for the Packers at the top of the seventh, ripping a single to right to score Runion.
Hance Smith (Cal Berkeley), the walk-off hero from their quarterfinal matchup against the Conejo Oaks, came in to pinch hit in the eighth and promptly smacked a double down the third base line. Montgomery was intentionally walked, setting up Blake Burke (Tennessee). He cranked a deep ball to center field, allowing the two runners to score and increase the lead to 8-5.
The Blues threatened to even things up after loading the bases in the bottom of the eighth. Grotto knocked a single to center field, scoring Austin Kretzschmar (Stanford) and Nick Costello (Cal San Diego) to make it 8-7. The tying run, Cermak, was safe at third, but Grotto attempted to reach second and got tagged out to end the inning.
With the Blues bullpen taxed, Cermak took the mound in the top of the ninth, despite never having pitched at the collegiate level. He struck out two of three batters to keep the Blues within one.
Spencer Hynes (Wichita State) came out in the ninth to close. The lefty struck out the final two batters of the game to secure Healdsburg the championship title.
“We got some dogs on our team. Nobody ever gave up, nobody gave in,” Hurley said. “Even after the first loss, [Gomes] was like, ‘I know this isn’t you guys. Let’s just get back to playing our game,’ and that’s what we did.”
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