St. Mary’s posted a gaudy regular season record this year, but a weak schedule had some questioning how it would fare against the East Valley big boys in the state baseball tournament.
Leave it to unassuming freshman Luis Paez Leyva to come up with the answer.
The Knights’ third baseman poked a two-out, go-ahead RBI double down the right field line in the bottom of the sixth and St. Mary’s held on to defeat Gilbert, 7-6, in the Division I playoffs on Saturday at Maryvale Baseball Park.
The win knocks Gilbert out of the postseason because the first two rounds are single-elimination.
St. Mary’s was the higher seed at No. 12 and the designated home team, but the Knights felt like underdogs to No. 21 Gilbert.
“We felt like we could maybe surprise them a little bit because of our weak schedule,” coach Mike Collins said. “The (St. Mary's players) just started believing in themselves and they know they can play with the best. I’ve had confidence all year, but they just needed it themselves. And I think they’ve got it now.”
Joey Bustamante had a pair of big hits early to knock in four runs as St. Mary’s jumped to a 6-1 lead through three innings.
Gilbert slowly made its way back, scoring two runs in the fourth and three more in the fifth to tie the game. Oliver Henninger was on first base with two outs in the sixth when Paez Leyva came up with the big hit, placing it down the line of the expansive outfield.
Despite the situation, Paez Leyva did not feel pressure.
“I was just relaxed and was playing the game like I know how to play it,” he said.
The Tigers had runners on first and second with two outs in the top of the seventh inning, but St. Mary’s right-hander Nico Maldonado induced a groundout by Jack Zoellner to clinch the win.
The Knights are now 24-4 on the season and will face No. 5 Desert Ridge in the second round on Tuesday.
St. Mary’s had not reached the postseason in a decade before this game, and Collins, in his fifth year as coach of the team, was emotional in the postgame huddle.
“We’re not the most talented team, but we play together,” Collins said. “It’s a total team effort. I couldn’t be any more proud of them then I am right now.”