Tucson Sahuaro pitcher Alex Verdugo struck out 18 batters over the course of six innings. His team still needed a walk-off single in the seventh to beat Nogales.
Senior Owen Sanchez, batting ninth, obliged. Sanchez poked an 0-2 curveball up the middle into center field to score Winston Welch from second, handing Sahuaro a 4-3 win Tuesday at Camelback Ranch, ending Nogales’ season and putting Sahuaro two wins away from playing for the state title.
“I had to get that one pitch,” Sanchez said, “and I couldn’t miss it.”
No. 4 Sahuaro (27-5) will play the winner of No. 1 Chandler Seton Catholic and No. 3 Scottsdale Notre Dame in a loser-out game at 4 p.m. Thursday at Camelback Ranch.
Sahuaro entered the seventh tied 3-3, having stranded 10 runners in the process. Three times Sahuaro left the bases loaded.
Sahuaro coach Mark Chandler knew if that trend held up, all anyone would talk about was that his team blew one of the most dominant pitching performances in recent memory.
“Believe me, I’m thinking to myself, ‘If we end up coming on the wrong end of this, that’s going to be the headline,’ ” Chandler said.
Through three innings, Verdugo had recorded every out by strikeout. He got a runner to ground out to start the fourth, but still recorded three punch-outs in the inning when a batter reached on a dropped third strike. The same thing happened in the sixth.
The junior lefty’s previous high was 15. Neither he nor Chandler knew exactly how many he had immediately after the game.
“I wasn’t counting them all in my head, but I kind of figured that I had a lot,” Verdugo said. “I saw a lot of batters going back to the box.”
Despite being on track to tie the 4A Conference single-game record of 21 strikeouts set in 1971, Verdugo did not come out for the seventh. His pitch count was over 100, and he’d pitched two innings of relief Saturday.
Even if Chandler had known the historic mark was approaching, he wouldn’t have done anything differently, he said.
“We took him out freshman year,” Chandler said. “He had a no-hitter going, and we took him out. All that’s great and fine, but he’s got a future and we want to facilitate that as much as possible.”
Sanchez went 2 for 3 with an RBI, and leadoff hitter Frankie Silva was 3 for 4 with a run and an RBI for Sahuaro.
In a Verdugo-less world, the attention would center around Nogales senior pitcher Marcel Renteria, who struck out 10 while scattering 10 hits in a complete-game effort.
“When I knew I was facing Verdugo, I was excited,” Renteria said. “All of Tucson talks about him. I said, ‘If he’s going to throw, he better throw his best game, because I’m going to come out lights-out too.’ My hat goes off to him. He shut us down completely.”