By Justin Vigil-Zuniga
Signal Sports Writer
Hart baseball (16-7, 8-0) remains the last unbeaten team in the Foothill League after their two-game sweep over West Ranch (11-12, 5-3).
The Indians finished the series with a 6-3 win over the hosting Wildcats.
West Ranch struggled to get going on offense and would strand base runners throughout their Thursday contest.
Troy Cooper would get the win for Hart in his quick two-inning start.
Indians pitcher Mike Rogozik would enter in the third and pitched a gem. The relief man threw 3.2 strong innings, striking out four and allowing just one run.
Hart sparked from the get go and brought in four first-inning runs.
West Ranch had the chance to make it a quick first inning but with two outs, first baseman Jake Schwartz lost a ball in the wind, allowing two runs to score.
Another Wildcat error would allow a third run to score before Caiden Helgeson brought in the fourth on an RBI single.
“Our hitters, in two days, did a really good job of executing,” said Indians head coach Jim Ozella. “They misplayed a couple balls, but that’s kind of what our intention was. Hit the ball hard and see what happens.”
Sophomore Jackson Banuelos got the start for West Ranch and threw five strong innings. The Wildcat pitcher would unfortunately miss out on the win due to costly team errors.
West Ranch would answer but not equal the runs. Senior Jake Callahan hit a sacrifice fly to cut the lead to three.
Hart then botched a third out opportunity of their own in the second with a bobble from shortstop Brayden Jeffris, allowing one more Wildcat run to score.
West Ranch junior Josef Brosche then brought in the third run of the day with a two-out RBI single.
Rogozik turned it on in the fourth and fifth innings. The junior pitcher threw a perfect fourth inning retiring three straight. After Cats catcher Logan Mandel hit a leadoff double in the fifth, the relief pitcher retired three of his next four opponents, stranding two key West Ranch base runners.
Once Rogozik gave up the run in the sixth, his day was done. Hart pitcher Ethan Rhodes came in and got out of the sixth unscathed.
On the other side, relief pitcher Caden Deck threw two great innings for West Ranch, retiring six of seven opponents.
“Our two pitchers completely put us in a position to win it,” said Cats head coach Ryan Lindgreen. “Jackson Banuelos was fantastic for five innings and Caden Deck was awesome for the last two. Both of our pitchers didn’t deserve this outcome. But you got to play all three phases if you want to win and we didn’t play all three phases.”
Deck had kept Hart at bay, setting up the Cats to make a run, and they got close.
Rhodes got into a jam in the bottom of the seventh. The pitcher still had a three-run comfort lead but quickly found himself facing two on with one out after Cats third baseman Ty DePerno hit his game-high third hit of the day.
Rhodes was unfazed and had the eight- and nine-hole batters in his way of the save.
The league pitcher of the year candidate then came up with huge consecutive strikeouts, ending the game and being awarded the save.
Each team will play a pair of two-game series to close out the season, but Hart, along with Valencia, has officially clinched a playoff berth with their win.
West Ranch is still in great shape for a playoff seed. The Cats need just one more win to officially clinch their playoff ticket.
The Wildcats will have their league series with Golden Valley (6-14, 1-9) starting at West Ranch Wednesday at 3:30 p.m.
The Indians still sit in first place but have the Vikings (11-9, 8-2) right on their heels. Both teams are already due for May baseball but will duke it out for the league title April 26 and 28.
In the meantime, Hart will host El Segundo for their final ECR tournament game before their league series with Canyon.
The Indians and Eagles are slated for Saturday at 10 a.m.