When Jalen Hernandez broke his right pitching hand punching something out of frustration a little over a month ago, he had no idea he would get a chance to make things right.
“I broke my hand and punched something I shouldn’t have, but I learned my lesson,” he said. “I worked through it, I worked through all my emotions and I’m back and better.”
No kidding. Making his first start since the incident, Hernandez delivered a clutch performance, pitching a complete game to lead Gilroy High to a 4-2 win over the King’s Academy on Wednesday in a Central Coast Section Division V playoff semifinal. The No. 8 seed Mustangs (4-7) play at No. 3 seed Pacific Grove (7-12) at 11am on Saturday in the championship game.
The Mustangs have already made history because this is the first time in program history they’ve reached a CCS title contest. However, they’re intent on bringing home the championship trophy.
“It’s going to mean everything if we could win it,” said Hernandez, who allowed just three hits and no earned runs while striking out seven. “It’s going to be the last time us seniors put on a Gilroy High uniform. It would be big-time if we could win the school’s first CCS title. It would be a holy mecca kind of thing.”
For the second time in as many playoff games, the Mustangs were involved in a nail-biting, white-knuckle affair. After beating top-seed Soledad 6-5 in the quarterfinals, Gilroy entered the bottom of the seventh inning against the King’s Academy with a seemingly comfortable 4-0 lead. But that’s before the Mustangs—who had played flawless defense all game—suddenly got a little shaky.
Two errors led to two runs, and the Knights all of a sudden had the potential winning run at home plate with one out and two runners on base. But Hernandez recorded his seventh strikeout before inducing a flyout to seal the outcome. Credit Mustangs coach Dennis Castro for sticking with Hernandez—most high school coaches would’ve had the hook ready upon seeing any kind of fading from the starter in the seventh inning.
Even though Hernandez gave up two hits in the last frame—or double the amount he had given up prior to that point—he was still going strong.
“My changeup and curve were working really well,” he said. “I was throwing changeups on 0-2 counts and they were swinging right through it. My curveball was on and they didn’t want anything of it. It was breaking everybody and everybody was frozen. I’ve had some good starts this season, especially the one versus Valley Christian. But this one did amount to a win, and that’s all you can ask for.”
The game was scoreless until Gilroy took a 2-0 lead in the top of the sixth. Ryan Villanueva singled with one out and Aaron Valdez walked before both advanced a base on a double steal. Villanueva then scored on a wild pitch, and Valdez advanced to third. Quinn Larson followed with a sacrifice-fly that scored Valdez.
Gilroy added two critical runs in the sixth. David Seanez was hit by a pitch, Bryan Walters walked and both advanced a base on a wild pitch. Owen Straub followed with a two-run single with a sharp liner to left field, making it 4-0. Talk about coming through when the team needed it the most. Up until Straub’s hit, the Mustangs were 1 for 12 with runners in scoring position.
Seanez made three spectacular plays at second base, none better than when he backhanded a grounder up the middle and in one motion tossed the ball with his glove hand to shortstop Walters, who stepped on second base and threw to first for a double play to end the sixth in what amounted to being a brilliant four-pitch inning for Hernandez.
Seanez also covered a ton of ground in making a nice over the shoulder catch on a flyball to shallow right field to end the bottom of the fourth inning. Gilroy’s tablesetter had two hits and reached base three times. Gilroy has come a long way since enduring a 10-0, mercy-rule loss to Christopher on Senior Night, May 17. Two days later, the Mustangs lost 6-2 to Live Oak, which earned a No. 4 seed in the Division I bracket (essentially this year’s Open Division). Because of the long layoff from the end of the regular-season to the playoffs, the Mustangs were able to hone in on things in practice and turn the CHS game into something positive.
“They (Christopher) whipped our butts,” Hernandez said. “But that flipped a switch in us. It gave us a taste of something we didn’t want to taste. We didn’t like that taste in our mouth so we spit it out and we got back together and fought as a team in practice. We battled in practice and in intrasquads, everything. (In the process) we were getting closer and closer. Against Christopher, we were playing as individuals; today, we played as a team and that’s what we needed to do and worked on in practice all week.”
When asked if he was surprised that he could deliver a dominating performance after being out for a month, Hernandez displayed a confidence that came through during the game.
“No, I’m not surprised,” he said. “In my opinion, it’s a muscle memory thing when it comes to pitching. No matter what it is—you can throw a blindfold on me—I’ve been doing it for so long that to me it’s muscle memory. My only thing was the pain. If my hand didn’t feel good, could I throw my pitches the way I wanted to? At first it did hurt, but you have to overcome the pain, especially for your team.”
Give credit to Hernandez for owning up to his mistake, and just as important, coming back to deliver one of his best starts of the season. The right-hander just had his cast taken off on June 11, and since then was doing everything he could to get back on track.
“I’ve just been battling back trying to get the hand better,” he said. “Trying to strengthen it so I could do what I did today. I was so sad I broke my hand, and I knew right away. I was dumb and I shouldn’t have done it. It was a selfish move. I wasn’t thinking about the team; I was just thinking about myself. Those three weeks I was so sad because you can’t play, you can’t practice, you’re on the sideline. But it was good for my arm because my arm got to rest, and I felt good coming into today.”