WATSONVILLE — Ruben Ibarra, a powerful senior slugger heading to San Jose State next season to play NCAA Division I baseball, did not record a hit in Wednesday’s Central Coast Section Division II playoff game against Monte Vista Christian.
And that was fresh in his mind when MVC senior first baseman Jackson Collins smashed the ball down the first base line with the game in the balance.
“If you’re not going to do it with the stick you have to make up for it with the glove,” Ibarra said. “There was no way that ball was getting through me. That was my play.”
It was and the Sharks are moving on.
Junior starting pitcher Chase Watkins tossed 6 1/3 innings of four-hit ball and Ibarra made a clutch diving stop for the final out in the No. 7-seeded Sharks’ thrilling 2-1 win over the No. 10-seeded Mustangs in Watsonville.
Watkins had 12 strikeouts and dueled with MVC senior starter Dylan McPhillips through the first five innings. McPhillips, who will play NCAA Division I baseball at Sacramento State next season, pitched five innings, surrendering only three hits and striking out four but he walked and hit four batters which helped the Sharks (13-13) keep innings alive in crucial moments.
Watkins, meanwhile, started off the day dominantly by striking out the first four batters he faced. He walked two and hit one but did not allow a hit until the fifth.
“My body just felt good from the start of the day,” Watkins said. “I knew it was going to be a good day. My back, my arm, everything felt right today.”
Watkins gave way to senior pitcher Andrew Ciandro, who allowed one run to cross the plate in the seventh and loaded the bases with a walk but was bailed out by Ibarra’s one-handed stop down the first base line.
“I wasn’t worried — been there, done that,” said Ciandro, who will play NCAA Division I baseball for Cal State Bakersfield next season. “It was getting pretty crazy but I told that guys after that I like to make things interesting.”
Ciandro broke the scoreless tie in the bottom of the fourth inning with a solo shot to deep right field and junior Mario Velasquez came around to score on the first of two MVC (11-13) infield errors.
Watkins carried the Sharks the rest of the way until he was pulled following a single from MVC junior Garret Laine.
Ciandro allowed a single to the first batter he faced and an infield error loaded the bases for the Mustangs. Junior Jacob Beardsley's fielder’s choice scored MVC’s lone run and Ciandro walked the next batter to load the bases once more.
Collins made solid contact and sent the ball zooming toward Ibarra but the fleet-footed 6-foot-4, 270-pounder came through in the biggest of moments, knocking the sharply-hit ball into the dirt, corralling it while still on the floor and springing up to beat Collins to first base.
“That’s Ruben. He makes those plays all the time,” Watkins said. “People don’t expect that from him but he’s agile.”
The Sharks will advance to play No. 2 Soquel High, which beat No. 15 Gunderson High on Wednesday, in the quarterfinal round of CCS D-II bracket on Saturday at Harbor High. The game is scheduled for an 11 a.m. start.
After an up-and-down season, the Sharks, who were missing both Watkins and Ibarra for close to the half the season because the duo was helping the school’s basketball team reach the state championship game, are happy their season will continue for at least another few days.
“We didn’t want this season to end,” Watkins said. “Ecstatic that it’s still going."
Ibarra, who was the lone freshman on the varsity squad when the Sharks advanced to their first and only CCS title game in 2014, said this year’s squad has some magic left in the tank.
“We knew we were going to do it,” Ibarra said. “We have to go out big. Have to go out with a bang. We have to make it back to Muni [Stadium].”
The two Watsonville-based private schools were set to meet on April 13 in a non-league affair but their game was rescheduled and eventually canceled because of inclement weather.
Both teams squeaked into the postseason with wins in their final regular season games. St. Francis beat Scotts Valley High to finish 6-6 in Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League action and the Mustangs beat Monterey High to take the Monterey Bay League Gabilan division’s fifth and final playoff spot.
MVC will graduate six from its roster of 18: Cory Souza, Brian Cosimano, Tyler Clark, Conor Emery, Collins and McPhillips.