Mariah Estrada couldn’t have asked for a better birthday present.
Up against a resilient Palm Springs softball team, who up until Friday afternoon held an undefeated Desert Valley League record and the top spot in the league standings, Estrada had pitched a complete game shutout headed into the bottom of the seventh inning.
With her home teammates up at the plate, all the senior pitcher could do was hope her nearly flawless seven innings against the strong Indian bats could be enough to escape extra innings.
But Estrada felt more than hope.
“I knew my defense had backed me up, and my hitting was going to come through for me,” she said.
Her hunches were right, after junior Yasmin Nix connected with her third hit of the game that sailed into center field, giving Ilana Valdez just enough time to round third and slide into home plate and evade the tag off an on-target throw from the Indians’ outfield for a 1-0 victory to tie both teams atop the DVL at 9-1 with two games each left in the regular season.
As the Blackhawks exploded from the dugout to mob Nix and Valdez, Estrada struggled to fight back tears, simply elated that the Blackhawks had come through yet again in a key game, giving the team a chance to at least share a 10th consecutive league title.
The only moment that may have paled in comparison was Estrada’s perfect game in her junior season, she said.
Of course, the chances of that type of outcome were slim as ever, going up against a Palm Springs offense that piled on three runs in the first inning when the teams met earlier in the season. They were erased completely when Estrada nailed Amari Easter square in the back with the first pitch of the game, before recovering with two strikeouts to eventually end the inning.
But Palm Springs starting pitcher Makayla August wouldn’t be out-done by Estrada. As the La Quinta starter fanned six batters in the first three innings, August did one better with seven strikeouts. When the game was over, each had recorded nine.
“She (Mariah) deserved the win, but their pitcher did a great job. She kept all our big hitters off-balance,” La Quinta coach DeDe Grutz said.
Both teams put up their best offensive threats in the fourth inning, with the Indians leading off the inning with a single to right field from Davia Hines. Even after Hines got caught too far off the base as the La Quinta first baseman caught August’s line drive before tagging her out for a double play, Sarah Martin reached base on an error and Sylena Black moved Martin to second base with a single to left field before a groundout ended the inning.
In the bottom of the fourth, the Blackhawks got Kamryn Tiumalu on base from an infield error before Kiara Mendoz’s two-out single, but Tiumalu was thrown out trying to stretch for third base.
The Indians put two more runners on base from two more Blackhawk errors to start the fifth, but Estrada kept her teammates settled and pitched the Indians into three consecutive fly-outs to end the threat.
“She (Estrada) brings energy,” Nix said. “She keeps us up with her positive attitude. She knows how to bring us up when someone gets down.”
The first few lines of Queen’s “We Are The Champions” blared through the speakers immediately following the handshake line, with the Blackhawk players and coaches celebrating in the outfield, but several parents quickly made certain the music was shut off.
The entire Blackhawk contingent knows well they’ve still got two games left to win to assure themselves of at least a share of another league title.
The Indians end the season against Indio and Cathedral City, two teams they beat defeated by double-digits the first time around, while the Blackhawks have to end with a road rivalry game against Palm Desert, a team they beat 5-0 earlier this season. Grutz and her players know after losing last season to Palm Desert once that game won’t be an easy win.
“Since we lost to Palm Springs, we’ve talked about how we can’t look ahead because if we don’t win this game, the next game means nothing … and it we don’t win against Palm Desert, this game meant nothing,” Grutz said. “They know what we need to do. They’re well aware that this was just the next step to possibly being co-champs.”