Tigers top Central to qualify for 5A district playoffs
Grand Junction is in the Class 5A district baseball playoffs again.
The Tigers hit three home runs and took advantage of seven walks Wednesday night at Suplizio Field to defeat Central 12-6 and clinch a playoff spot.
“We were talking the whole week, we want to get to the playoffs,” Grand Junction junior Sean Rubalcaba said. “To get there, we needed to clinch a spot. The seniors were saying we need to jump on them and we did.”
The Tigers (12-2, 6-1 SWL) have qualified for the Class 5A districts nine consecutive seasons, but haven’t reached the state championship series since 2008.
The Warriors (10-6, 3-4) will need to win out and get some help to earn the Southwestern League’s second playoff berth over Fruita Monument (10-5, 4-2).
Unlike the first meeting between the teams, the Tigers jumped on Central starter Alex Kitzman, scoring two runs in the top of the first inning.
Kitzman uncharacteristically walked two batters and it cost him when Rubalcaba hit an opposite-field single to drive in two runs.
“I noticed he was working away on a lot of the batters,” Rubalcaba said. “I made a mental note if he puts it there, I’m going to try to drive it that way. I got a fastball a little bit inside and put it that way and got some runs (in).”
In the third inning, Kitzman (3-3) appeared rattled by a balk call, giving up a two-run home run to Casey Burns to put the Tigers up 4-0.
“You could see it took the wind out of our sails a bit, but you’ve got to compete,” Central coach Chuck Yost said. “Yeah, it was a big hit and a big call, but it happened in the third inning. There was still a lot of baseball left.”
Grand Junction’s Tyler Gastineau hit a two-run home run in the fourth and Kitzman was pulled in the fifth after giving up a leadoff single.
“We focused a lot on how he was going to pitch us this week,” Rush said. “We approached it in (batting practice) the way we’d see him. We put (assistant coach) Tony Taylor on the mound and he can hit his spots like Kitzman does. (Kitzman’s) the best kid in the league right now.”
The 7-0 lead was enough for Grand Junction starter Chandon Rose (3-0), who limited the Warriors to three runs on three hits, but walked seven in five innings for the win.
“(Rose) pitched four strong,” Rush said. “Our goal was to get him through six, but his pitch count was at 94. We had a lead and thought we could hold them.”
Central took advantage of three consecutive walks from Rose in the fifth to score three runs, but couldn’t come up with a hit to drive in more.
Grand Junction answered with five runs in the top of the sixth, including two on a Cory DeRush home run and two more on a base hit by Hutten Veatch for a 12-3 lead.
The Warriors rallied in the bottom of the sixth, scoring three runs with the aid of three walks and a balk, but again failed to come up with a hit with runners in scoring position.
“We didn’t hit,” Yost said. “All of our runs, none of them came off a hit. They either walked them in, balked them in or came in off a ground ball. You can’t do that.”
Central was missing its No. 3 hitter, Tanner Reid, who was ill. Reid is expected to return before the Warriors host Montezuma-Cortez one week from Friday.