After surviving to tell about it, Chaparral baseball coach Sam Messina called Saturday night the best game he's witnessed.
With the way it began and ended, it was hard to argue the emotion, history between Chaparral and Horizon, clutch hitting, key strikeouts and great fielding all factored into a game which lasted beyond regulation.
Things started easy, struggled at the end, but the Firebirds posted a 12-11 win over Horizon in nine innings at Surprise Stadium on Saturday night, and advanced to the state 5A Division II state tournament semifinals.
On Thursday night, Chaparral will play Tuesday night's winner between Desert Valley Region rivals Horizon and Desert Mountain. Either the Huskies or Desert Mountain has to beat Chaparral twice at Peoria Sports Complex on Thursday to reach the 5A-II title game.
With seven runs in the first and three more in the second, the Firebirds jumped out early against the Huskies, but this lead remained tenuous at best. Horizon battled back to tie in dramatic fashion, and took the lead in the eighth. The Firebirds responded to deadlock matters in the bottom of the eighth and then Joe Bielek’s walk-off double into the left center gap scored Nick Diamond from second base with the game winner in the ninth.
“On the on-deck circle, I put myself in a zone, and I was ready,” Bielek said. “Really, I don’t remember what pitch I hit, but I managed to drive it in the gap.”
Out to a 10-2 lead after two innings, the Firebirds appeared to put matters into cruise control, but instead crashed and almost burned.
Horizon responded with a five-spot in the third, but Firebirds' reliever Peter Lenstrohm cooled the Huskies with no runs into the seventh.
With Chaparral holding a 10-7 advantage into the final frame, the Huskies appeared to save their best for last. Ryan Hand drove in a run with a two-out single to cut the lead to 10-8. Then, Nick Vanlenza drilled a dramatic, two-run, pinch-hit home run into the left field bullpen to knot the score and force extra innings.
The Huskies then took the lead in the top of the eighth when Chaparral pitcher Nevin Wilson tossed a wild pitch, and allowed Tanner Horn to score from third.
In the bottom of the eighth, Firebirds’ catcher A. J. Schillinger stepped to the plate with runners on second and third, two out and trailing 11-10. Schillinger knocked an 0-2 pitch into center field for a single. Jordan Hein scored easily from third, but Horn’s throw from center field caught Nick DeRegis at the plate and game moved to the ninth frame.
That’s when Bielek ended this one with a his first game-winning hit of the season. The double was his 19th of the season and passed alumnus Paul Konerko (now with the Chicago White Sox) for second place on the single-season doubles list. Ahead is the Mets’ Ike Davis, who banged 23 doubles in a season.
“Joey has been a pillar for us all season, and he did it again,” Messina said. “Great win for us, and I’m so proud of our players. Give them credit, and (Horizon) kids played so well. They are very well-coached, and that was evident. “
Down by eight, caught their opponent, went ahead, but only to lose in extra innings was little comfort to the Huskies.
“You can’t give up seven runs in the first inning, and that’s where the game was lost,” Horizon coach Eric Kibler said. “Sure, we had a heck of comeback, but they also got the hits when they needed them.
"Hey, it’s not over, and we’ll be back.”