LA HABRA — Much like its midseason revival, the Maranatha High baseball team’s clinching of an Olympic League championship was part magic, part faith.
The Minutemen escaped two critical half innings in which host Whittier Christian appeared poised to break open its league game Tuesday afternoon and scored two runs in between in what was a 3-1 victory.
“I felt like this team was special, like it was touched by God,” Minutemen Coach Matt Shupper said. “I think the difference today is that we really wanted this game and were prepared to win. It’s special because we were counted out earlier this season and to comeback and win this is amazing.”
Up, 3-1, heading to the bottom of the seventh, the Minutemen’s league title appeared to be slipping when junior reliever Jeffrey Oki (3-1) allowed Whittier Christian’s first two batters to reach on a walk and single, putting runners on the corners.
Two pitches into the following at-bat, Oki caught a break when Parker Subia, who was on first base, was thrown out trying to steal second by freshman catcher Paul McAllister. The out was also important because Whittier Christian’s baserunner at third chose not to steal home.
The baserunning out was followed by a groundout from JJ Farrell and a walk to Brian Rafter that put runners on the corners again, this time with two outs.
Again, though, the Heralds engaged in some questionable baserunning that ultimately cost them the game when Rafter was thrown out trying to steal second by McAllister to end the inning.
“Paul was huge, he really helped me out by throwing two guys out. He’s a freshman, but he came up big,” said Oki of his battery mate. “We all made some plays.”
A half inning earlier, Maranatha broke a 1-1 stalemate with two runs, aided by some wildness from Heralds pitcher Mike Rafter.
With out one in the top of the seventh, Maranatha shortstop Niko Dobbs (two for three with a double, run and stolen base) laced a single to left field and was joined on the base paths by Trevor VanRiper, who was walked, and by Aidan Yamada, who was hit by a pitch.
With the bases loaded, Maranatha senior Daniel Rasmussen delivered a different type of storybook game-winner, when he was plunked on Mike Rafter’s first pitch to him, which scored Dobbs and gave Maranatha a 2-1 lead.
The hit by pitch was followed by a run-scoring single from Max Heefner past the drawn-in infield that plated VanRiper and completed the scoring.
“We talked about playing together and doing what was needed to win,” said Rasmussen, who had a double, RBI and run scored, while starting on the bump and allowing one run on four hits with three strikeouts over five innings. “We believed in each other.”
A half inning later, with the game knotted at 1, it appeared Whittier Christian was about to blow the game open when the Heralds loaded the bases with no outs on a double from Rafter, a single from Colin Ashworth and a walk to Mike Rubio.
Oki, who entered after Rasmussen allowed the double to Rafter, calmly responded by inducing a 5-2 fielder’s choice that was followed by a first-pitch pitchout between Oki and McAllister in which Ashworth tried to score on a botched squeeze and was tagged out.
“We’re an aggressive, gambling team and today it didn’t work out,” Heralds Coach Brent Lavoie said. “That doesn’t mean we’ll change who we are.”
That costly out was followed by an inning-ending strikeout from Oki.
“It was a great pitch-out call by the coaches,” Oki said. “That changed the inning.”
The Minutemen initially tied the game at 1 in the sixth when a double from Rasmussen was cashed in on a double from Oki.
The victory was the ninth in 10 games for the Minutemen (13-10-1 overall, 8-3 in league), who began league with a 1-3 mark that included blowout losses to Valley Christian (13-0), Village Christian (11-3) and Whittier Christian (8-2).
“We just believed we could come back,” said Shupper, a La Cañada High alumnus. “I can’t say what brought us back other than the teamwork and the desire of this team to turn it around.”