Facing elimination in the Palomino League Super Regional playoffs, the Peninsula White Sox needed a spark.
They certainly got one with the addition of outfielder Alex Athanacio.
After dropping last week’s Super Regional opening game, the White Sox rallied back to win three straight games through the losers’ bracket, including a doubleheader sweep Saturday at Harvey West Park in Santa Cruz.
With the win in the doubleheader nightcap — a 7-3 victory over the Santa Cruz Seals — the White Sox clinched at least a third-place finish in the tourney, by virtue of which they clinched a berth in the Palomino West Zone Tournament at the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton for the second straight year.
“It was kind of like — mission accomplished,” White Sox manager Lenny Souza said. “It was a good feeling. They were really happy with it.”
Athanacio was the catalyst at the top of the order for the Sox. Being added to the roster at the start of the tourney due to Souza having to replace an injured player, Athanacio hit safely in all five games, going 8 for 16 with a home run and two doubles in the tourney.
Not that Athanacio is new to the White Sox dugout. After graduating from Aragon High School in 2016, he played the entirety of last summer with the Sox. With the team advancing to the West Zone Tournament last season, walking into the MLB Urban Youth Academy was a new experience for everyone on White Sox pinstripes. With a majority of the roster having played last year, that won’t be the case this season when the team opens West Zone play Thursday.
“Just having leadership there will be key,” Athanacio said, “because, last year, I don’t think we had guys that had been there before. This year we have guys that have been there before. So, knowing what type of hitting we’re going to face, what type of pitching we’re going to face, the experience is really going to help.”
After clinching the West Zone berth, the White Sox were eliminated from the tourney in the third-place game Sunday with a 6-5 loss to the Los Gatos Legends. But Saturday evening’s win took the sting out of elimination, for sure.
In addition to Athanacio, the secret to Souza’s success was in taking a page out of former Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen’s playbook. It was in the 2005 American League Championship Series when Guillen rode his starting rotation — of Mark Buehrle, Jose Contreras, Freddy Garcia and Jon Garland — to four complete-game victories to advance to, and win, the World Series.
Saturday’s third-place clincher was a 7-3 win over the Santa Cruz Seals, in Peninsula White Sox starting pitcher Owen Hackel gave his team its third straight complete game of the tournament. Michael Benz provided the first CG on Friday in a 2-1 win over the Nor Cal Mavericks-Stockton. In Saturday’s opener, Anthony Calvo out of Aragon went the distance in a 6-2 win over the PAL Giants-San Jose.
“You can’t ask for anymore than that,” Souza said of the back-to-back-to-back complete games.
Entering play into Saturday’s win-or-go-home nightcap, however, Souza was thinking far beyond the 2005 ALCS connection.
“To us, this was like, ‘you play the game like the World Series,’” Souza said.
The Sox fell behind 1-0 in the bottom of the third, but came storming back in the fourth. After a leadoff walk to Zach Avila, it looked like the rally was destined to stall when the Santa Cruz outfield made two diving catches. But the White Sox ultimately laoded the bases, setting the stage for an RBI walk to Elliot Biagini to tie the score 1-1. Then Henry Kazan delivered a two-run single to give the Sox a 3-1 lead.
In the sixth, the White Sox again loaded the bases and cashed in. Biagini delivered an RBI single, followed by a two-out, two-run single by Athanacio.
Hackel did the rest, whirling his sidewinding off-speed stuff en route to the momentous victory.
“He threw so well,” Souza said. “He’s a sidewinder, doesn’t throw incredibly hard. But [hitters] hate that.”
In Saturday’s opener against the PAL Giants, the Sox broke a 2-2 tie in the fifth on an RBI single by Willie Reader.
Then Avila at second base turned in one of the defensive plays of the tournament to keep the 3-2 lead in check when, with a runner on first, the Giants got a sharp grounder that looked ticketed for center field. But Avila ranged to glove it with a backhand and flipped it with his glove hand to Reader at shortstop to start a 4-6-3 double play.
“It’s one of the nicer plays I’ve seen at any level,” Souza said.
In the sixth, Athanacio added insurance with a three-run homer. He went 3 for 4 in the game and finished a triple shy of the cycle.
Calvo finished the day allowing six hits while striking out three.
Athanacio had been playing travel baseball this summer when Souza contacted him last week to ask him to fill the open roster spot. Athanacio said he’s been in workhorse mode this summer after a subpar freshman season at Cañada College.
“I played in the same (Palomino) league last year, so I knew what I was getting into,” Athanacio said. “Also at Cañada, I didn’t have a terrible year, but I had a year that made me want to work hard this summer.”