When Justin Sakai suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament injury last June, he was expected to miss his entire senior season.
“I wasn’t supposed to throw for the next year,” the Live Oak High pitcher said.
Which makes the terrific season he’s having all the more remarkable. Sakai pitched an absolute gem last Saturday, tossing six innings of one-run ball to lead the Acorns to a 2-1 win over crosstown rival Sobrato High. Sakai had everything working, striking out a season-high nine while allowing only three hits.
“This is probably my best start of the year so far,” he said. “My first start was a CG (complete game), but I think this one potentially overtook that one, especially since it’s our rivals and the last time our senior class is going to get to play them.”
Utilizing a potent fastball, curveball and changeup, Sakai had the Sobrato hitters off-balance from the start. Sakai had a hunch this was going to be his day as he was throwing in the bullpen in pregame warmups.
“My fastball was screaming in the pen today, so I had a pretty good feeling I would be able to keep these hitters off-balance as long as I could locate my off-speed stuff and hit my spots,” he said. “Today there was something special going on in the pen. I had never thrown that hard in the pen before.”
The teams played another ultra-competitive game that featured nothing but good sportsmanship and high drama. Both the Acorns and Bulldogs are having solid seasons, with the potential for mini storybook-type finishes. Live Oak entered the week at 4-2 in the Blossom Valley League’s Mount Hamilton Division, while Sobrato had a 4-1 mark in the Santa Teresa Division.
Both squads will play the top teams in their respective divisions within the next week. For Sobrato, their margin for error is a slim when it comes to making a potential appearance in the Central Coast Section playoffs. Plagued by the inability to accumulate the maximum 27 games allowed due to rainouts and a lack of officials, the Bulldogs will have to stay resilient after one of their standout players, Cooper Callison, started experiencing arm issues and thus won’t be able to pitch or catch for at least a couple of weeks, if not more.
When backup catcher Will Nikitas had his own bout with arm issues earlier in the season, Bulldogs coach Mitch Martinez had to forage for a catcher from the junior varsity team. Sobrato has a promising up and comer in freshman Tyler Pina, who started against Live Oak and looked like a seasoned veteran in handling pitchers and playing the game with a confident demeanor. Another freshman from the JV team, Shane Callison, also started and along with Pina represent the future of the program.
“They’re the same type of player and they’re both good players,” Martinez said.
In fact, Pina and Shane Callison had two of the team’s five hits, with Callison scoring Sobrato’s only run in the bottom of the third inning. Junior Justin Rashid has been elevated into the team’s No. 1 pitching role with Cooper Callison unable to start, and he delivered a solid performance Saturday, giving his team a chance to win.
However, the Bulldogs squandered some key opportunities offensively, especially in the bottom of the seventh inning when they had runners at first and third base with one out. But Acorns reliever Connor Hennings got out of the jam with back-to-back strikeouts to clinch the outcome. Hennings, Sakai and Mitch Nagel have been the team’s most consistent starters, and Justin Jud and Gabe Milos have pitched well and given the team plenty of depth and quality arms on the mound.
For Sobrato, Rashid and Josh Balderas will be the Nos. 1 and 2 starters going forward, with junior Alex Percini expected to make an impact as well. Offensively, Cooper Callison—who will still be able to hit—William Conn and Nick Ketner have led the team offensively. This was the second time Live Oak has beaten Sobrato this season, with both victories coming by a single run.
Sobrato received some stellar defense from shortstop Michael Barone, who snagged a ball deep in the hole and made a strong throw to first base for the first out in the top of the fifth. Bulldogs coach Mitch Martinez said he likes the way the players fight to the very end, something that will serve them well when they face division leader Oak Grove twice this week.
“They show their competitiveness and willingness to dig deep,” Martinez said. “The best games we’ve played so far were against Silver Creek. We came back in the later innings in both games, and we also did that against Lincoln.”
The Acorns scored both of their runs in the top of the first inning, on RBI singles from Tyler Madden and Jud, who continued to swing a hot bat. Jud went 4 for 4 a day earlier in a 12-2 win over Gunderson, and he produced singles in his first two at-bats to go a combined 6 for 6 over two games.
Leadoff hitter Josh Elam had two singles, while sophomore Patrick Kissee and senior catcher Gavin Vallez had the only extra-base hits of the game with both producing doubles. After enduring a rough 2018 season, the Acorns have already doubled their win total in league play in the BVAL’s top division this season. They find themselves in a tie for second place entering this week’s play, with a total of four games in the next two weeks against first-place Leigh and Leland, the team they’re tied with for second place.
“I’m hoping the energy stays up, the boys stay positive and we start executing all the little things right like every coach wants,” Acorns coach Matt Brotherton said. “We’re going to face some really good pitching the next couple of weeks, and it’s going to be a challenge.”
Brotherton expects his team to rise to the challenge, and just as important, stay together in the process. He said the team has a closeness and bond that rivals and even surpasses any of the teams he’s coached previously.
“It’s really a great group of kids,” he said. “They have incredibly good chemistry and we try to create that all the time with team bonding activities and what not, but this team had it from the beginning. They were all in with each other and for each other. They really are one of those groups who like hanging out with each other.”
The team attended a Santa Clara University baseball game two weeks ago, and earlier in the season it carried on a tradition started by former coach C.J. Goularte by going on a hike together.
“It was a couple of hours, but nothing too strenuous,” Brotherton said. “More like a walk in nature.”
Sakai has a cool demeanor, yet he knows when to deliver the goods. Sobrato had runners at first and second base with two out in the fifth when Sakai got Camden Redfield to hit into a fielder’s choice to end the inning. As he walked off the mound, Sakai pumped his right fist and yelled, ‘Let’s go, let’s go.” Sakai located the pitches he wanted to in every key moment of the contest, leading to a stellar pitching performance.
“My mindset when runners are on base is to shake things off,” he said. “Stuff happens in baseball, and people are going to get on. You’re not going to be perfect, but you have to stay confident, trust in your stuff and shove.”
Once Sakai received his diagnosis last June—the good news was he didn’t need surgery—he couldn’t throw a baseball for 4 ½ months. Sakai spent two months rehabbing his elbow, and things went so well that in December Sakai was cleared to do some light throwing. Sakai had one foot out the door and had barely hung up the phone before he was playing catch.
“I was already in my back yard throwing and calling all my friends when I got the news,” he said. “It was pretty crazy how everything turned out.”
Sakai went from no hope in June to a glimmer of hope in the fall to full-blown optimism in December. From there, Sakai started hammering his baseball and strength-training workouts, the latter with ID3 Training’s Dan Cabuling.
“I’ve been getting after it and it’s been great,” he said.
Sakai needed just 88 pitches to complete six innings, and his fastball had just as much pop in the sixth as it had in the first inning.
“I was a little surprised my velocity stayed up as long as it did,” he said. “I try to keep my pitch count low so I can go deep into games.”
Sakai’s unexpected availability this season has taken on added importance since the team lost top starter Jakob Neumayer to a torn labrum in the fifth game of the season.
“He was the ace at the time, so Justin was a welcome heal,” Brotherton said. “We thought he was done for the year, so it was definitely a welcome surprise. We are dodging the injury bullet, but somehow we’re still performing well. Give credit to the boys and how they’ve responded.”
Jud, who was in the No. 5 spot in the lineup Saturday, has provided the team with hits in crucial situations all season.
“He’s been rolling the last couple of games,” Brotherton said. “He’s a first baseman and has been putting the barrel on the ball and getting a lot of clutch RBIs for us and doing a great job.”