As Menlo head coach Craig Schoof walked to the mound in the bottom of the fifth inning of the Knights' Central Coast Section quarterfinal CCS contest against Santa Cruz, he had every intention of taking his sophomore starting pitcher Davis Rich out of the game.
The bases were loaded with one out for the second straight inning, pitchers Garrett Matsuda and Wyatt Driscoll were both warmed up in the bullpen, and Rich, who did not have much starting experience on the season, seemed to be tightening up in the later innings.
Schoof had made this same journey to the pitching slab countless times during his 27-year career as Menlo's head coach, and not once had he allowed a pitcher to talk his way into staying in a game.
But as Schoof jogged back to the Knights' dugout, Rich remained firmly entrenched in the middle of the diamond.
"It really wasn't much of a conversation," Schoof said of his talk with Rich. "I was coming out to get him . . . and he said 'no I want the ball.' We had been talking all year about guys wanting the ball, wanting to hit and wanting the ball hit at them. So, when he said that, I went 'what the heck, let's go with it.' "
Rich rewarded Schoof's his decision, as the underclassman induced a double play from cleanup hitter Davonte Scott to end the inning, and finished up a five-hit shutout to help No. 12 seed Menlo (19-12) defeat No. 4 seed Santa Cruz, 4-0, and advance to the semifinals of the Division II playoffs.
"That's something Rich will never forget, because he bowed his neck and decided this is my game I'm going to do it," Schoof said.
Rich seemed surprised when told he was the first pitcher that successfully convinced Schoof to stay in a game, and the sophomore was grateful to his retiring coach for the opportunity.
"I've really been honored by the faith coach has had in me this year," Rich said. "The confidence that he's had in me these last couple of games has been tremendous, and it really helps me out on the mound."
For most of the year Rich had come out of the bullpen, so the start was only his third of the season. In Rich's last outing he also pitched a complete game, allowing one earned run in Menlo's 5-4 victory over Half Moon Bay in the Peninsula Athletic League Tournament.†
To go along with Rich's strong performance on the mound, Menlo also had a phenomenal day fielding the ball against Santa Cruz. Led by sophomore left fielder Antonio Lopez, the Knights seemed to run down every ball hit into the outfield, and did not commit an error in the game.
"You got to give all the credit to the defense," Rich said. "What I have to do is go out there and throw strikes, but they have to go make the plays. They were great today. I definitely couldn't have done it without them."
The Cardinals (14-11), on the other hand, had a lot of trouble fielding the ball cleanly, committing three errors that led to scoring opportunities for the Knights.
Menlo first got on the scoreboard in the third inning, as senior Graham Stratford hit a sacrifice fly to plate one run, and sophomore Jared Lucian followed up with an RBI single to put Menlo ahead 2-0.
The next inning, the Knights were able to increase their lead due to a series of mistakes from the Cardinals.
Senior Sam Crowder led off with a single, and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt from senior Christian Pluchar. The next batter, junior Macklan Badger popped out to Santa Cruz catcher Max Chun, but after Chun made the catch Crowder broke for third, and Chun's throw went into left field, allowing Crowder to score.
Menlo added another run later in the inning, as a throwing error by Scott, the Cardinals' third baseman, allowed Rylan Pade to score.
"They made some errors and we hit the ball well," Lucian said of Menlo's offense on the day. ""We also got some timely hitting which we haven't had in the past."
Santa Cruz mounted a rally in the bottom of the fourth inning, loading the bases with one out, but Rich struck out Brock Theilen and got Nick Smith to fly out to center field to get out of trouble.
The Cardinals set up the same bases loaded, one out scenario in the bottom of the fifth inning, but Rich worked out of that jam as well thanks to the double play ball off the bat of Scott.
Along with the win against Santa Cruz, the Knights got some more good news Saturday with No. 8 Branham upsetting top-seeded Pacific Grove, 3-1, in another Division II quarterfinal game.
Everything seems to be falling in place for Menlo to continue its CCS success, as the Knights will now travel to San Jose Municipal Stadium on Tuesday at 4 p.m. to face the Bruins (18-14) in the semifinals instead of the Breakers, who had defeated Menlo in the past two CCS Division III championship games.
"Branham is a very good team from a very good league," Schoof said. "They did something we were not able to do the last two years. We are in for a tough one but we will be ready."
It's already been an improbable run for the Knights, and Schoof acknowledged that there might not be as much talent or experience on this year's squad when compared to some of his previous teams.
Still, Schoof said there were other valuable traits Menlo had in spades to possibly lift the Knights to their fifth straight CCS championship game.
"It's their heart and their belief in themselves," Schoof said.