They huffed and they puffed and they blew a lot of smoke, but the antics of Manteca High’s varsity baseball team could not compete with Oakdale’s Rally Fish.
The Mustangs, united around an odd and ugly rubber trout, produced knocks in timely situations to rally to back-to-back wins on April 23 and 25 over the previously unbeaten Buffaloes.
The series sweep allowed Oakdale (15-8 overall, 8-2 Valley Oak League) to gain a serious advantage over Manteca (14-5, 8-2) as the teams vie for the Valley Oak League title.
The Buffaloes were winners of 11 straight, but managed only eight hits in the series and were baffled by Oakdale arms in both outings. In a sport shrouded in strange superstitions, Oakdale’s peculiar mascot also appeared to come in handy.
The fish, discovered on the baseball field by assistant coach Nate Gregory, was brought to Manteca on a whim, then ceremoniously rubbed, hoisted and worshiped as all Oakdale’s runs were scored with two outs.
The fish again proved a rallying point in game No. 2, when Oakdale overcame a momentary deficit with clutch runs in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings.
The Oakdale cries of ‘Rally Fish’ helped silence a Manteca dugout that was alive with jeers, dancing and screams in an attempt to rattle Mustang pitchers.
Instead, Nick Ippolito and Bryce Dyrda shined with two brilliant seven-inning affairs that left Buffalo hitters swinging at air or dribbling balls into double plays.
In his unexpected first start of the season, Ippolito hit his spots with 13 strikeouts and only one walk, allowing five hits as Manteca struggled to string together offensive success.
The Downey transfer is a former Oakdale Baseball Association product who played alongside Oakdale slugger Ericksen Dickens on the Oakdale Colts travel baseball team.
“I think Manteca knew we would be tough, but they figured they would get at least one win against us,” Ippolito said. “When our pitchers throw strikes we are really tough to beat.”
Dyrda was equally sensational in the first game. He fanned six Manteca hitters with dazzling third-strike breaking balls and surrendered only three base hits. He hit a batter and walked four, but he got out of a jam on a 4-6-3 double play in the third inning and was spectacular with runners on base.
When his final pitch was popped up to end the seventh inning, Dyrda stretched and extended his arms skyward in a warrior pose as teammates and fish joined a frenzied dog-pile just past the mound.
Dyrda said he appreciated the support of his teammates who made sure not to repeat second-game losses to East Union and Sierra that put Oakdale’s title chase in jeopardy.
“It’s huge to have that kind of support on the mound,” Dyrda said. “It’s a great feeling to be able to finish what you started up there.”
Colt Parshall hit 1 for 3 in both contests and managed three total RBIs. He smashed a ball into right field to score Eddie Machado for Oakdale’s first run in game 2, and then plated an important insurance run in Oakdale’s final at-bat with a brilliant sacrifice bunt.
“It was a low fastball, not easy to bunt,” Parshall said afterwards. “Overall it was a great series for us.”
Dickens led the offense in game 1 with a 3-for-4 effort that included a triple and a run. Nik Garza scored twice, going 2 for 4 with two runs and an RBI double.
“They beat us in every aspect of the game,” Manteca coach Gene Ballardo said afterwards. “We’re lucky (the score) wasn’t 10-1.”
In game No. 2, Tanner Morgan hit 2 for 3 and delivered a sharp double to deep center that scored Ippolito for the go-ahead run in the fifth frame. Dyrda and Sean Harrity also belted hits.
“Our kids responded to (last week’s loss to Sierra),” Oakdale coach Hondo Arpoika said. “We played errorless defense against Manteca and we are starting to come together at the right time.”
Manteca committed three errors in each game, allowing two unearned runs in both contests. As of Monday, the Buffaloes had yet to play fourth-place Sierra (13-8-1, 6-4) or the third-place Kimball team (16-5-1, 7-3) Oakdale swept.
Since VOL teams have met for an all-conference final in each of the last two Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV title games (Oakdale won both), the league champ is likely to receive a favorable seed into the 2013 postseason.
Other favorites include Vista del Lago (22-4), Ceres (20-3-1) and Central Catholic (18-4-1).
Oakdale began a two-game series with the same Sonora program (2-8, 10-11) they beat in last year’s SJS banner game on Tuesday, though results were not available at press time. The Wildcats visit Oakdale to complete the series on Thursday, May 2.