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Verdugo, Rams clinch spot in American Legion region championship

Jose Verdugo kept finding himself in clutch situations Saturday night.

Fortunately for Rancho’s American Legion baseball team, Verdugo kept finding ways to be productive.

Verdugo was 3-for-4 with a home run and four RBIs, scored the go-ahead run with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning and pitched out of two bases-loaded jams to lift the Post 8 Rams to an 8-7 win over Tucson (Ariz.) Post 36 in the American Legion Western Regional in Surprise, Ariz.

Rancho (31-18) clinched a spot in Monday’s region title game.

“Jose is just a tremendous athlete,” said Rancho coach Tom Pletsch. “The bigger the moment, the finer he is, and he came up big for us tonight. He’s really not a pitcher, but he pitches for us to help us out.”

Verdugo, who had four RBIs in the first two innings as Rancho built a 5-1 lead, came on to pitch in the top of the eighth inning with the score tied at 6-6 and promptly loaded the bases with no outs.

The Rams got an out when Tucson’s Justin Hammergren tried to score on a failed squeeze bunt. A fielder’s choice and a strikeout ended the threat.

Verdugo ripped a two-out double in the bottom of the eighth inning and scored on Zach Barnhart’s double down the right field line to break the tie.

Juan Cruz-Sanchez tacked on an RBI single to up the lead to 8-6.

“The middle of our order is such a big part of our offense,” Pletsch said.

Tucson threatened again in the ninth, putting runners at the corners with no outs. Two outs later, consecutive walks forced in a run, and Tucson had the bases loaded when Verdugo struck out Mark Catalano to end the game.

“This was big,” said Pletsch. “By winning tonight, we know we’re in the championship game. It allows us to pitch some younger guys tomorrow.”

Cruz-Sanchez was 3-for-5 with a double, and Barnhart was 2-for-5 with two doubles and two RBIs for Rancho, which will face Chico (Calif.) at noon Sunday. Tucson Post 36 will face Tucson Post 7 at 9 a.m.

If Rancho defeats Chico, the winner of the battle of Tucson would need to beat Rancho twice on Monday to claim the title. If Chico defeats Rancho, Chico would move on to face the Tucson-Tucson winner at 10 a.m. Monday with the winner of that game moving on to play Rancho for the title at 1 p.m.

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