Two decades ago, Merced College centerfielder Danny Ayala always looked for second baseman Patrick Fuentes before he unleashed his throws. On Monday afternoon, the former teammates again will stare each other down. Only this time, from opposite dugouts.
“I used to be his cutoff man,” said Fuentes, the coach of the Los Banos Tigers. “Now I want to cut him off.”
Ayala, the coach of the Central Catholic Raiders, and Fuentes have remained good friends. They’ve even scheduled a few non-league matchups. The stakes have hiked, however, for their teams’ Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV semifinals collision, rescheduled for Tuesday at 4 p.m. at Stagg High. Livingston and Casa Roble will follow at 7 at Stagg.
Merced College’s baseball tradition, along with the legacy of longtime Blue Devils coach Chris Pedretti, will hang over these games like rain-bearing clouds. Livingston is led by former MC star Matt Winton, another branch off the Pedretti coaching tree.
There are other ex-Blue Devils coaching in the area, but three will gather at one venue for the D-IV final four.
“Just to see how much these guys love the game, and how they’ve passed that down to their players, is very gratifying,” Pedretti said. “A lot of ‘em use the same signs we used at MC.”
Pedretti retired last year after a 32-season coaching run that produced 840 victories, fifth all-time on the state community college list. He’s passed down his baseball knowledge to former players who were no-doubt inspired by his determination and leadership.
“Good bloodlines,” Ayala said. “Chris was a great coach to learn from. The proof is in the pudding when you look around the area.”
The Central Catholic-Los Banos semifinal is one to watch. Los Banos (25-1) has won 21 straight since its 1-0 loss to Buhach Colony, Front Row Preps’ top-ranked team, on March 9.
The starting pitchers, Max Ramirez of Los Banos and Dalton Durossette of Central Catholic, have been welcome additions. Both are transfers -- Durossette from Ceres and Ramirez, a senior, from Watsonville.
Durossette, a junior and Santa Clara commit, checks in at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, a frame which has held up after nonstop transitions from football to basketball to baseball. His 90-mph fastball started to click during the Raiders’ six-game winning streak. He’s also batting .341 with 16 RBIs, the No. 3 hitter in a lineup featuring leadoff man Dylan Babbitt (.403) and No. 2 Orlando Leon (.338).
The No. 4-seeded Raiders (16-11) have pulled virtually the maximum from their first postseason appearance in six years. Durossette opened the tournament with 11 strikeouts to beat Ripon 5-2, and Connor Semone also tossed a complete game during CC’s 4-2 win over Sonora.
Durossette will present a striking contrast to the 5-9 Ramirez, the Los Banos right-handed pitcher who forms a lethal one-two punch with lanky Kody Cardoza. The Tigers outscored Western Athletic Conference opponents 148-4 behind Ramirez (10-0, 0.59 ERA) and Cardoza (11-1, 0.57 ERA).
When they aren’t pitching, Ramirez (.517, 27 RBIs) and Cardoza (.304, 15 RBIs) remain in the lineup as productive third basemen. They supplement a batting order bursting with offense: Trent Mallonee (.585, 30 RBIs), Miguel Espana (.329, 30 RBIs), Landon Ramos (.389, 22 RBIs) and Chase Wilson (.386, 30 RBIs).
Los Banos, the No. 1 seed in D-IV, enjoyed a first-round bye and was idle for nine days before it defeated Pioneer 6-4 on Friday. The layoff might have bothered the Tigers. Pioneer was only the second team to score four or more runs against Los Banos this season and even built an early 1-0 lead.
The Tigers answered with a six-run rally in the third, punctuated by Espana’s bases-loaded triple and run-scoring hits by Jack Arragona and Chase Wilson. In the seventh with the tying runs in scoring position, Ramirez relieved a tiring Cardoza and struck out the final two batters.
“It was good for us to deal with the adversity,” Fuentes said. “We made three errors in that game. I think it was nerves. It was a do-or-die game.”
Fuentes (no relation to former MC and big-league pitcher Brian Fuentes) and Ayala starred for the Blue Devils in 1998 and ’99. Both went on to play for Culver-Stockton College (Mo.) and sealed a permanent friendship. Fuentes later was inducted to the Merced College Hall of Fame.
“Pat is a lot of fun,” Ayala said. “We’ve had many baseball and life conversations.”
Before Ayala and Fuentes, Winton put on a Blue Devil uniform for Pedretti in 1989 and ’90. “One of the best athletes I ever coached,” Pedretti praised.
Winton is wrapping up his 26th season at Livingston with a team that captured the Wolves’ first Trans-Valley League title since 1996. The Wolves marched to the semifinals with an 11-1 cakewalk over Venture Academy and a hard-earned 5-0 win over Woodland.
Cesar Avila, a senior slowed by a shoulder injury, has gotten healthy at the right time. He stole home in the sixth inning to break a scoreless tie against Woodland, the Golden Empire League runner-up. Next up is Casa Roble, the GEL champion.
But never far from Winton’s mind is Pedretti, who set him on course for a rewarding career.
“He treated us like adults and held us accountable,” Winton said. “Then he would bust his butt to find a place for us to play afterward. A phenomenal baseball guy.”
The Merced College connections never end. Winton coached Fuentes in American Legion. Dave Cardoza, Kody’s father, served as one of Pedretti’s assistant coaches.
The tournament will switch to a double-elimination format starting Monday. Unchanged is its remarkable hookup to Pedretti’s Blue Devils.