Joe Johnson delivered.
The senior slugger ripped a three-run home run to straightaway center in the fifth inning, then held the host Tigers in check the rest of the way for a 3-2 victory at Stanfield.
“It was absolute pandemonium,” said Crusaders coach Sean Gallagher. “We’d made some base running mistakes and were just hanging on, hanging on, hanging on, waiting for a miracle. That just changed everything.
“The dugout erupted, the fans erupted. The momentum changed immediately, and there was no way we were going to lose the game after that.”The Crusaders are seeking their first state championship since 1982, when Dennis Murphy was the head coach. They are the No. 4 seed, while Glide is No. 6.
St. Mary’s and Glide (22-6) have split in two meetings this season. The Crusaders won the season opener, 7-2, and the Wildcats won 10-5 three weeks later in Glide.
Against Stanfield-Echo (24-3) — the defending 3A champion — St. Mary’s gave up two runs in the third inning. It might have been more if not for a spectacular defensive play by left fielder Nathaniel Savage.
Leading 2-0 and with a runner at second base, the Tigers’ best player, Dylan Grogan, ripped a shot that appeared destined for extra bases.
But Savage “made an absolute circus catch,” said Gallagher. “Turning to his left, diving, he caught the ball like Willie Mays. It was absolutely incredible.”
Savage then bounced up and threw a strike to second base to double up the runner and end the inning.
Despite the deficit, the Crusaders were loose, said Gallagher.
In the fifth, J.D. Arevalos walked to start the inning, but St. Mary’s couldn’t move him over. Savage failed to get a sacrifice bunt down and Travis Danielson popped out to center field. Brandon Letendre walked to bring up Johnson.
“They knew he was our No. 1 hitter,” said Gallagher. “They didn’t want to give him any fastballs.”
With a 2-0 count, Johnson looked at a curveball for a strike. Pitcher Klay Jenson came back with the same offering, and Johnson unloaded his 380-foot blast for a 3-2 to lead.
It was his sixth home run of the season.
Fired up when he took the mound, Johnson largely eschewed the cutter and curve he normally mixes in and pounded fastballs inside, said Gallagher.
In four innings in relief of Letendre, Johnson allowed three hits, walked two and struck out six.
St. Mary’s pulled out the victory even though it only had three hits.
“They believed in themselves, and they were resilient,” said Gallagher.
Letendre, Johnson (4) and Arevalos; Jenson, Grogan (6) and Monkus. W — Johnson (9-3). L — Jenson. 2B — SM: Robinson; S-E: Bailey, Renner, Woods 2. HR — SM: Johnson (6).
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