April 29, 2008

Grand Slam Homer Hits Home for Gauchos

April 29, 2008

It was like something out of "The Natural." Things were looking desperate for the UCSB baseball team, but the bat boy knew that something special was about to happen.

The Gauchos' "Wonder Boy" season -- a 28-13 record and second place in the Big West Conference -- had begun to splinter on Sunday. A 3-0 deficit after eight innings had made victory at Cal Poly seem as far away as Johnny Brontsema, their 13-year-old bat boy.

But when Johnny left for a Dodger game that morning with his Pony League teammates, he handed his dad his own kind of "Savoy Special," good-luck charm.

"He left a message," said UCSB coach Bob Brontsema. "He said, 'I just want to call and wish you good luck -- and congratulate you early on your 400th win.' "

This had been a running battle between father and son since January. Johnny had alerted dad about the impending milestone three months before he'd even reached win No. 399 on Saturday night.

"He's my No. 1 fan," the 15th-year coach said through a weary smile, "and he's been talking to me about it from the beginning of the season. He'd say, 'You know, you can get there this year.' And I'd say, 'Yeah, I don't want to talk about it.' And then he'd bring it up again: 'You know, you can do it.' And I'd say, 'I don't want to talk about it.'

"And then he'd ask me, 'You know how many you need?' And I'd go, 'I . . . don't . . . want . . . to talk . . . about . . . it!' "

But the bat boy got the last word on Sunday morning, thanks to the magic of cell phone message machines.

For eight innings, it looked as though Cal Poly would have the last word. Pitcher Stephen Fischback had held UCSB to just four hits and no walks. The Mustangs also appeared set to expand their 3-0 lead when they loaded the bases with no outs in the bottom of the eighth.

"Chuck Huggins had battled his butt off all day," said outfielder Brian Gump, referring to the Gauchos' starting pitcher. "And then (Michael) Martin came in to relieve . . . and his seniority and experience have been huge for us all year."

Mustang cleanup batter Brent Morel smashed Martin's second pitch up the middle, but shortstop Shane Carlson reached out to get UCSB's first grip on a miracle.

"He backhands it -- and it's hit so hard that he gets knocked down backwards," Brontsema said. "He gets back up, makes the play at the plate."

The next batter bounces a ground ball up the middle that Carlson turns into an inning-ending double play. And suddenly Brontsema is wondering if there is such a thing as a cell-phone prophecy.

Carlson singles with one out in the top of the ninth, steals second base and then nearly wears himself out, running back and forth between second and third as Jon De Alba fouls off pitch after pitch.

"He puts up a great, great at-bat -- like a nine-pitch at-bat -- and then he bounces a single up the middle," Brontsema said. "So we break the shutout. Okay. This is getting good."

Gump is beginning to count the batters, trying to figure out how many more it will take for him to get a swing at it. The answer is three.

"I realize that if I'm going to be up this inning, it's going to be a big situation," he said.

Pat Rose smacks a hard shot at the second baseman. A good bounce, and it's a game-inning double play. A bad bounce, and UCSB is still alive.

"It eats the guy up, it's hit so hard," Brontsema said, "and he has to scramble for it."

Gump twitches in the dugout as Rose sprints down the line.

"There's never, ever been a time when that guy has dogged it down the first-base line," he said. "I just love that about him."

Rose beats out the infield single, and UCSB's comeback is gaining momentum.

A strikeout reduces the Gauchos to their final out. And soon Steve Cook, who was a bench player before a season-ending injury to infielder Matt Valaika a month earlier, finds himself down to his last strike.

"He's my roommate," Gump said. "I sleep next to the guy every night -- and we'd always talk and I'd tell him, 'Trust me, you're going to get your shot . . . You've got to stay ready.' "

Cook fights off a few pitches, takes a few more, and finally walks to load the bases.

And as Gump strides to the plate, with his roomie representing the winning run at first, he realizes that he'd been right: This was as big a situation as he's ever faced.

Like Cook, he'd been a reserve for parts of his two Gaucho seasons. But nobody had worked harder during the last offseason.

"I always felt that I was building up to this point, all the hard work that I've put into it," he said.

And he wasn't going to wait for the opportunity to pass. He'd noticed that Cal Poly had started him off with inside fastballs all day, and he'd taken every one of them.

Gump had vowed to teammate Chris Fox a few innings earlier that "if they give me that first-pitch fastball again, I'm going to go ahead and take a big hack at it."

He opens up his stance in the batter's box "just a smidge," and then swings mightily at the first pitch. It was an inside fastball, and he gets all of it.

"I knew I'd hit it good, but when I saw the center fielder turn, I thought, 'Ooh, he might have a play,' " said Gump.

Back in Santa Barbara, where Brontsema's daughter Kathryn is following the game on the family computer, the "Gametracker" program begins simulating the result of Gump's at-bat as though it's a routine fly ball.

"Oh no!" Kathryn shouts to her mother, Kathleen. "He popped out! Oh! Too bad!"

Gump watches the ball carry as he speeds around first base, hoping that it'll hit the wall before the centerfielder can reach it. But then, suddenly, he can't see the ball at all.

Kathryn turns back to the computer and realizes that the ball has indeed disappeared.

"Wait a minute!" she screams at her mother as the computer announces Gump's grand-slam home run.

Gump never breaks stride, churning even harder for home plate after he touches third base and slaps the hand of Johnny's and Kathryn's father.

"The best part of the whole thing was rounding third base, hitting Bobby's hand and looking up and seeing the whole team," he said. "Everybody had big smiles on their faces, jumping up and down waiting for me. I kept getting hugs for the next couple of minutes until we had to run out there and play defense."

Martin needs just seven pitches to set Cal Poly down in order, and the Gauchos are soon celebrating their 29th victory of the season -- and 400th of Bob Brontsema's career.

The last Gaucho to get the final score of 5-3 is their bat boy. Mom calls one of the Pony League moms at Dodger Stadium to relay the good news.

But then again, Johnny had known the score all along.

Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday: E-mail: mpatton@newspress.com

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