COSTA MESA -- Three innings left to go ... the Orange Coast College baseball team trailed El Camino 4-0 ...
The Pirates had them right where they wanted them.
For the 10th time this season, the Pirates entered the seventh inning tied or trailing and for the 10th time this season, the Pirates pulled out a victory. This one proved to be the biggest as OCC advances to the State Final Four with a 7-4 win over the Warriors in Game 2 of the Southern California Sectionals on Saturday at Wendell Pickens Field.
"We sure don't make it easy on ourselves do we?" OCC head coach John Altobelli said. "We've done it time and time again and even though it's hard to keep believing when we are down late, you just have to keep playing and taking the game one pitch at a time. These guys found some momentum and never looked back and I couldn't be happier for them. What a great bunch of guys."
With the win, the Pirates (33-13) -- the highest remaining seed in Southern California -- will take on the No. 2 seed out of Northern California on Saturday at Fresno City College's John Euless Ballpark. The four-team, double elimination tournament will take place Saturday, May 26 through Monday, May 28. Opponents and times are to be determined.
The most recent "comeback of the year" begin in the top of the 7th (OCC was the visiting team), when Chris Ceballos lined a double to right-center off of ECC starter Spencer Long, (5-5) who had held the Pirates to no runs on three hits over the previous six innings. Domenic Donato walked and Ramiro Velasco followed with a double to center, scoring Ceballos and sending Donato to third.
Jacob Gentry followed with a shallow fly ball to center, but Donato tested the arm of the Warriors' outfielder and it paid off, as the deficit was cut to 4-2.
A walk to Murphy Stehly put runners on the corners and ended the afternoon for Long. Reliever Max Pappas came in and was greeted with a comebacker to the mound off the bat of Joey Fregosi. But Pappas' throw to second was late and Velasco came around to score, bringing the Pirates to within a run at 4-3.
After a stolen base by Silver put runners on second and third, Coby Kauhaahaa came through with a two-run single to left to put Coast ahead, 6-4.
With the Pirates in front, Altobelli turned to standout reliever Gus Culpo, who worked around a pair of walks with three big strikeouts to end the seventh with Coast still in front.
After a 1-2-3 eighth inning, Culpo went back out to the mound for the ninth. The sophomore right-hander, who, two years ago, nearly had his career come to an end following a pair of surgeries, struck out the side, sending the Pirates and their fans into a frenzy.
"What a great moment for Gus," Altobelli said. "He's been working so hard to get back on the mound and to see him not only get the job done, but do it by striking out the side ... I couldn't be happier for him."
Culpo picked up his second save of the season after coming in for starter Cameron Jabara (8-0), who had to grind through six tough innings against the Warriors (28-18). The sophomore righty struggled early with his control, but still managed to give the Pirates six innings and allowed four runs on four hits with five walks and six strikeouts.
"I'm so proud of Cameron for battling out there and giving it everything he had for us," Altobelli said. "It wasn't easy but he made some adjustments and kept us close enough so we could come back late."
El Camino jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first when Jose Ruiz Jr. walked and jogged home on a two-run home run off the bat of Diego Alarcon. It became 4-0 in the third when a pair of walks were cashed in with a two-run single off the bat of Joseph Borges. ECC stranded a pair of runners in the fifth before a 1-2-3 inning ended Jabara's outing on a positive note.
From there, it was the OCC offense and the right arm of Culpo, who faced 11 batters and struck out seven in three dominating innings of work.
"Fresno was where we wanted to get to ... that's been the goal the entire season," Altobelli said. "Now it's time to dig a little deeper and see what we can do at the State Final Four."