Zak Qualls couldn’t have faced much more pressure than he did Tuesday.
The junior left-hander came on with the bases loaded and no outs in the bottom of the seventh inning with Rancho clinging to a 4-2 lead.
Although Qualls walked a batter to force in a run, he more than made up for it with three strikeouts as the Rams (25-3, 13-0 Northeast League) held on for a 4-3 win over host Las Vegas (20-7, 11-2) to clinch the league title.
Rancho has won 12 in a row and 22 of its last 23.
“Man, I was nervous,” Qualls said. “There’s not much to say about that. I knew I had to get it done for my team.”
The Rams led 4-1 entering the seventh, but two singles and a hit batter loaded the bases, and Brig Jensen singled home a run to chase Rancho starter Eric Holdren.
Qualls came on facing Las Vegas’ No. 3 hitter, Quinnton Mack, and struck out Mack looking with a 1-2 curveball for the first out.
Robert Melendrez then fouled off a pair of two-strike pitches before working a walk to force in a run.
But Qualls struck out Jesse Acosta looking with a 1-2 fastball, then blew a fastball by Dillon Dove to end the game.
“That’s the best situation we could be in,” Las Vegas coach Sam Thomas said of having the middle of his order up with the bases loaded and no outs. “If somebody would have told me this morning that we’d have three strikeouts, two of them looking, with the bases loaded, I wouldn’t have believed them.”
There was a time when it would have been difficult to believe Rancho won a league title. But the team has seen a resurgence in recent years under fifth-year coach Tom Pletsch, a 1979 Rancho grad. The Rams’ title ended Las Vegas’ streak of 10 straight Northeast crowns.
“This is five years at Rancho, and the first title since probably the mid-80s,” an emotional Pletsch said. “I can’t even begin to tell you what it means.”
Qualls said taking the league title should help his team entering next week’s Sunrise Region tournament. “It’s a great boost of confidence,” he said.
Contact Prep Sports Editor Damon Seiters at
email@example.com or 702-380-4587.
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