It took a record-setting 16 innings of grueling, suspense-filled baseball to determine the Arizona 5A Conference state champion on Tuesday night in Tempe.
And despite a valiant effort by the Nogales Apaches' starters and reserves alike, it was their opponent who got to raise the trophy in the end.
No. 1-seeded Nogales and No. 2 Horizon of Scottsdale faced off in an epic showdown that saw Horizon come back from a 3-0 deficit to force extra innings, Nogales plate a run in the bottom of the 15th to tie it at 4 and keep the game alive, and Horizon break through with three runs the next inning to win 7-4.
“Just going through the game, it’s unfortunate that a team was going to have to lose, but you know, both teams made some great plays, both teams pitched it well,” Nogales coach O.J. Favela said. “We had our chances, we had our opportunities, we just, we couldn’t come through to walk it off on our part.”
The Apaches used seven pitchers in the five-and-a-half-hour game, including three who threw four innings or more. Horizon used four, including closer Kody Huff, who came on the sixth and ended up pitching eight shutout innings, leaving after the 13th having thrown 98 pitches out of the bullpen.
Nogales also used three catchers after starter Mario Duarte was ejected in the ninth inning for arguing balls and strikes, and backup Kenneth Jimenez hurt his leg. That put third-string backstop Adam Sinohui into the game in the top of the 13th, and in only his second at-bat of the season, he singled to lead off the bottom of the 15th and start a game-tying rally.
“It was a crazy game,” said NHS senior pitcher German Fajardo, who came on in relief in the top of the 10th and pitched out of a bases-loaded jam.
“It was draining. But our guys, we all pushed through it and tried to fight to the very end. Even in the last inning when we were down by three, we were still there fighting, trying to come back, do something, spark the crowd, something,” Fajardo said. “It was a tough loss, but I can say that we all grinded through this game.”
In a contest filled with player substitutions and re-entries – 17 different Apaches appeared in the lineup – the Nogales defense was remarkably steady, playing errorless ball during the 16 innings. Center fielder Ricky Maytorena was especially busy, catching 10 fly balls. Shortstop Jorge Bojorquez had nine assists in the game and third baseman Jesus Lopez had seven.
The Apaches made a couple of mistakes on the basepaths, however, that led to two runners being picked off. And while they put 23 men on base via 17 hits, five walks and a hit batsman, they couldn’t get enough clutch hits and ended up stranding 16 runners.
“We had our chances, and they showed a lot of character down by one in, what was it, the 15th? We scored a run, had a chance to win the game, and we just didn’t execute,” Favela said. “Their kids did a good job, you’ve got to tip your hat to their pitchers.”
Arizona Interscholastic Association representatives on hand at Tempe Diablo Stadium said the contest shattered the state record for longest championship game, surpassing the 12 innings played by Chaparral and Coronado high schools in the 4A title game in 2002.
Extra, extra innings
With Nogales seeking its third-consecutive state championship, Favela gave the ball to senior hurler Alec Acevedo to start the game after Acevedo won his two previous playoff starts. He kept Horizon scoreless through four innings, and also helped the Apaches put their first run on the board when he led off the bottom of the third with an infield single.
Luis Rodriguez came in to run for Acevedo, and scored when Jesus Lopez ripped a double to left.
Nogales extended the lead to 3-0 in the bottom of the fourth when Maytorena singled with one out and came in to score on a triple by Jorge Bojorquez. Acevedo (4-for-7 in the game) followed with another single to score Bojorquez.
Horizon answered with two runs in the top of the fifth with a single-triple-single combination of their own. They tied the game in the sixth when Nogales couldn’t turn an inning-ending double play and a runner came in from third.
Neither team scored again for the next eight-and-a-half innings.
The Apaches had a walk-off opportunity when Jimenez stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and two out in the ninth. After working the count to 2-2, he fouled off three consecutive pitches before hitting a chopper back to Huff on the mound to end the threat.
In the top of the 11th, Miguel Vega took over on the mound for Nogales and pitched the next five innings, finally surrendering a run in the top of the 15th on a one-out single followed by a run-scoring double into the left field corner.
It was the first time in 43 innings of postseason play that Nogales had trailed.
Then, with runners on second and third and two outs, Vega struck out the final batter of the inning to limit the damage.
With the Apaches now trailing 4-3, Sinohui led off the home half of the 15th with a single through the infield, igniting the large Nogales crowd, who encouraged their team with chants of “Si se puede!”
Pinch-hitter Fernie Rodriguez bunted pinch-runner Raenon Padilla to second, and after a pop out, Brayan Espinoza (3-for-4 in the game) belted a two-out double to score Padilla and keep Nogales’ season alive.
“They just did their jobs,” Favela said of his reserve players stepping up in the clutch. “We told them all year, ‘Be ready, you never know.’”
In the top of the 16th, Aaron Solis came in from the bullpen and hit a batter, induced a groundout and issued a walk before giving way to Jose Guerrero. Yet another fly out to Maytorena had Nogales an out away from escaping unscathed, but a single, balk and bloop hit gave Horizon the three runs it needed to put the game away.
Nogales ended the season 28-4 overall, and while they fell short of a three-peat, Fajardo, one of nine players on the 2019 roster who were also part of the 2017 and 2018 championship teams, said he could look back with pride.
“Overall, the high school career for those nine guys, you could say it’s pretty amazing to win two state championships and then lose in the state championship your last year,” he said. “It’s a tough loss to swallow, but it’s a hell of a group of guys. I mean, I love these guys to death and I couldn’t ask for a better team.”
Putting the past three seasons in perspective, Coach Favela said: “It’s been a heck of a ride, it’s been a heck of a journey.”