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By RodThornburg / Special toThe Californian
BY ZACH EWING Californian staff writer email@example.com
Nick Vehlewald knew Jake Sweaney was fast, but just maybe, he thought, this was too big of a challenge.
But even with a long pause at second base, Sweaney motored home from first base on Vehlewald's seventh-inning double and scored in a cloud of dust to lead Garces to a 3-2 home victory over North on Friday.
"I've known Jake since we were two years old, and I knew anything in the gap would score him from first," Vehlewald said. "But when I saw him stop, I got scared a little bit. Good thing he's a quick guy."
The victory all but assures a Southeast Yosemite League title for the Rams (21-5, 5-0 SEYL) with three league games remaining, but this one was far from easy. North (17-8, 3-2) led 2-1 after a fourth-inning home run down the right-field line from Jacob Lucas.
"We expected a battle," Vehlewald said. "We've always had trouble with them, ever since I was a freshman, and they're our big rival in league.
"We weren't having some good at-bats, but I knew we were eventually going to come through."
Garces had runners on base in every inning except one, but they couldn't tie the game until Collin Jamieson's RBI single in the sixth. And even there, North pitcher Colton Blankenship left the bases loaded.
"We had two runners picked off, and those opportunities, that was kind of shaky, kind of scary," Garces coach Guy Dees said. "But we've been in a lot of close games, and I have faith in my boys. They came through."
Vehlewald, who relieved Garces starter Kenneth Lopez and shut down the Stars for the final two innings, also came up big at the plate.
"I'm used to coming in and having to keep us close or keep us ahead," Vehlewald said. "I like that spot. I like the pressure."
And he proved it again in the bottom of the seventh. After Sweaney -- a dynamite defensive catcher who also is the state leader with 11 home runs -- singled with one out, Vehlewald came up in a big spot. He raked a 1-0 double down the right-field line, where North outfielder David Flores was playing him to pull.
Sweaney, who was running with the pitch, stopped at second base and nearly turned back when it appeared Flores might have a shot at making the catch. But the ball hooked away from Flores and rolled to the fence, and Sweaney was off to the races. He scored right as the ball arrived and rolled to the fence.
"It was a hairy situation," Dees said. "He thought the ball was gonna be caught, so he kind of stopped and was still able to go. He's an exceptional talent."
North coach Cy Silver was more frustrated with the Stars' earlier miscues. They gifted Garces a first-inning run when leadoff hitter Jack Anspach hit a fly ball Flores lost in the sun and went to third because of an error during the relay throw. He scored on a dropped pop fly later in the inning.
"We gave them a run early," Silver said. "We don't give them that run, it's a different ballgame."
North also had a runner in scoring position in each of the last five innings. Lucas' homer was their only hit in 10 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
"We had some opportunities, and we put ourselves in a position where he had to save every run," Silver said.
"Those guys got hits when it counted, and that's what it was last time (a 3-1 Garces victory). They took advantage."
North will have to play in the Division I section playoffs, but Garces is in D-III and looks like a top two seed. Sweaney's speed -- and Vehlewald's flair for the dramatic -- will be instrumental when they get there.
"This was fun," Dees said. "This is a good team. This is one of the hardest-working teams I've ever been around, and as a result, I think the ceiling is pretty high. But it's baseball. Anything can happen."