As expected, Copper Canyon junior pitcher Alex Gutierrez was dominant for stretches of Tuesday’s West Valley region showdown with Sunrise Mountain. But Mustangs junior hurler Steven Kane was even better.
Sunrise Mountain (14-5, 5-1 West Valley) paired Kane’s complete game shutout with some opportunistic offense to squeeze past Copper Canyon (18-4, 7-1) 2-0.
"I've been closing some games for us. In a lot of games, when I'm not starting, I'm closing," Kane said. "It helps me in those kind of situations, those pressure situations. I like it. I want the challenge."
Kane was in command throughout the afternoon, allowing only three singles and walking three batters. The junior struck out eight Aztecs — including three of the four batters he faced in the seventh inning — and permitted only one runner to reach second base.
"We toyed around with who we were going to start today, and Steven's been throwing the best right now and we needed to win today's game," Sunrise Mountain coach Eric Gardner said. "His E.R.A. is below 2. We've brought him in on the back end of games, he's been so good. He's pitching with so much confidence that there's no doubt what's going to happen."
The Mustangs needed every pitch, as Gutierrez snuffed several opportunities for Sunrise to add to its early 1-0 lead.
In the bottom of the second inning, the Mustangs loaded the bases with singles by juniors Tony Troftgruben and Shane Johnson and a bloop by junior Tyler Crawford that was dropped.
Gutierrez induced a popup for his second out, but walked junior Jesse Poweziak to give Sunrise Mountain its lead.
Kane cruised through his first four innings, allowing only two base runners. Gutierrez, meanwhile, pitched his way out of some jams.
With one out in the bottom of the third, Junior Austin Byler fouled off six pitches after getting down 1-2, worked the count full and drilled a double to the right field corner. Gutierrez responded with two strikeouts.
Junior Drew Wolff singled to start the bottom of the fourth, but was thrown out when Crawford tried to bunt him over. Senior Tyler Mussro doubled down the third base line.
Mustangs were at second and third with one out. Gutierrez escaped again with a strikeout and a pop fly.
"I think that Alex got better as the situation got tougher" Gardner said. "The more guys got on, the better he was throwing. We bring our good guys in the lineup — the guys we want up — and he threw better."
Junior Dru Douglass singled to lead off the fifth. But Copper Canyon’s first glimpse of hope was erased when Kane and sophomore catcher Adam Webb teamed up on a pitchout and nailed Douglas trying to steal second.
Later in the inning, junior Mike Hernandez singled and advanced to second on a wild pitch. Kane regrouped and ended the threat with a strikeout.
"This whole week we've practiced for intense situations. When we practiced (Monday), everything was live just because we wanted to make sure we were in that mindset of execution," Gardner said.
The offense rewarded Kane in the bottom half of the fifth by capitalizing on Copper Canyon's mistakes. Byler reached second base on a high but catchable fly ball that was lost in the sun.
Then, Troftgruben and Wolff were hit by pitches to load the bases with two outs. Gutierrez again got the batter out, but not before Byler scored on a wild pitch.
"We couldn't get the right guys up, but gosh, I wish I could get Byler up every single time right now," Gardner said. "We got a couple of breaks. They kicked the ball and helped us out. For us right now two runs is like six runs with our guys on the mound."
Senior Marcos Gomez led off the sixth with a single up the middle. Then the Mustangs' defense, solid all day, preserved the lead.
Troftgruben made a sliding catch of junior Tony Suarez's shot to right center. Poweziak, Wolff and Crawford teamed up on a crisp double play to end the inning.
"It definitely lets me bring it to them," Kane said. "I don't have to be perfect. I can get away with getting it over the plate and having them hit it to our defense."
Gutierrez recorded another strikeout with the bases loaded to end the sixth inning, but Copper Canyon could not solve Kane in its final opportunity.
Though the Mustangs remain in second place in the league, Tuesday’s win puts the onus on the Aztecs. The teams are established as the class of the region.
Baring a slip up by either squad — like Sunrise Mountain suffered last week against Dysart — Thursday's rematch at Copper Canyon will determine the region title and be crucial in the 4A-I power point standings.
Gardner's not sure which junior lefty — Crawford or Aaron Bummer — will start. But he's positive Copper Canyon will start Gutierrez's brother, Rudy.
"This is a momentum builder and to me the pressure is on Copper Canyon now. Now they have to know that it's a win or go home situation because the expectation would be that both of us win out. The winner on Thursday is going to win the region." Gardner said. "I think Rudy's just as good as Alex, if not better. I don't know who's better. We've just got to decide who we're throwing on Thursday."