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Casa explodes against Windsor, wins NBL title

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After starving for runs against hard-throwing Windsor right-hander Tyler Hellums for five innings Friday afternoon, Casa Grande batters gorged on Windsor relief pitching in the final two innings, romping to a 16-4 victory to win the North Bay League championship in Chad Fillinger’s first year as head coach.

For the first five frames, a game between two teams that just two weeks earlier had struggled 12 stomach-churning innings before Casa Grande walked off with a 5-4 win, was a masterful pitching duel between Windsor’s Hellums and Casa’s Nik Kamages.

Kamages kept up his end of the matchup almost to the end, allowing two runs on five hits over six innings. He walked three and struck out eight. Mostly, he just threw strikes.

“He pitched a great game when we needed it,” said Fillinger. “He has been doing that all year.”

The slow-working Kamages needed to be on top of his game because Hellums was equally effective for the Jaguars. He struck out two of three batters in the first inning, and had four whiffs through the first four innings.

His only problem was a tendency toward the wild side. A walk, a hit batter and two wild pitches gave Casa Grande the game’s first run in the fourth, and in the fifth, he walked in another run with the bases loaded.

It was still a two-run Casa lead with the game and a share of the league championship very much in doubt when the Gauchos stepped up to swing in the top of the sixth.

Suddenly, everything changed.

One after another, the Gauchos sent long drives soaring into the spacious Windsor outfield.

Joe Lampe and Joey Loveless had ultra-long doubles and A.J. Miller put a satellite into orbit that would have left any part of the yard except for a canyon in straight-away center field where it landed, allowing the left-swinger to reach third with a triple. Another key smash came off the bat of Aaron Van Tighem who drove in two runs.

Before the inning ended, Casa Grande had eight runs and an NBL pennant.

Not that the bopping was complete.

“When we start hitting like that, it’s contagious,” said Fillinger. That contagion is not easily controlled.

Fillinger reached to his bench for a bevy of pinch-hitters, and still the assault continued. Off the bench to supply hits came Noah Bailey and Cole Shimek, with Austin Mattos providing a run.

The Windsor regular season-ending finale was in sharp contrast to another must-win 4-3 victory over Rancho Cotate played on the Casa Grande diamond earlier in the week. Loveless ended that one with a bases-loaded walk-off single in the last of the seventh inning.

That game featured a gritty pitching performance from Travis Morgan, who survived nine Rancho Cotate hits and base runners in six of the seven innings to keep the Gauchos solvent until Loveless could smack the game-winning hit into right-center field. Morgan worked his way through all seven innings. It helped that he didn’t walk a batter. He struck out four.

Casa Grande also had multiple opportunities but seldom got the key hit that might have broken open what became a tense struggle.

Things did not look very promising for Morgan and the Gauchos when the first two Cougar batters — Wyatt Vogt and Mason Heinse — started the game with hits. Both eventually scored in the opening inning, but Morgan minimized the damage with two strikeouts.

Rancho Cotate would not blink its side of the scoreboard again until the sixth inning, when the Cougars came up with three singles, a Gaucho error and a catcher’s interference, but got only one run as the Cougars let three potential runs expire on the base paths.

Meanwhile, Casa batters pecked away at Cougar hurlers Joey Kramer and Justin Thomas. Doubles by Loveless and Cole Santander provided a run in the second. A single by Van Tighem, a double by Miller and Cameron Downing’s ground out provided a second run in the third, and singles by Downing, Elijah Waltz and Santander added a game-tying third run in the sixth.

After two were gone in the top of the seventh, Rancho’s Riley Cronin smashed a long double to center field, but he remained stalled at second when Morgan got the third out on a pop-up.

With tension mounting in the bottom of the inning, Van Tighem, a left swinger, led off with an opposite-field hit to left. Lampe put down a perfect bunt that became more than a sacrifice when he beat it out for a single. Miller flied deep to center with both runners moving up after the catch leaving first base open to be quickly filled by Downing who was intentionally placed by a wave of Cougar coach John Morrow’s hand.

Loveless then smacked a solid single into right-center field, all three Gaucho runners carefully touched bases, and Casa had a win that, combined with the wild win at Windsor, gave it the North Bay League championship.