The first game of the UAAP Season 78 Baseball Finals saw two timeless rivals square off for the fourth straight year, but it was a rookie whose star shone the brightest.
Rookie lefty pitcher Diego Lozano stopped the high-powered Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles in their tracks with six strikeouts in the last five innings to give the De La Salle University Green Batters their first finals game win since 2003 in an 8-3 win and draw first blood in the best-of-three Finals series.
It was a battle of last season’s top two rookies on the mound, with national team pitcher Paulo Macasaet and UAAP Season 77 best pitcher Boo Barandiaran anchoring their respective team’s defenses.
Right off the bat, the defending champions threatened to punch in the first run of the game at the bottom end of the first inning. Lead-off batter Radito Banzon singled to left field and, later on, was able to gain third base with two outs. However, the La Salle defense was able to strand Banzon after a force-out of Kai Furusawa for third out.
After three scoreless inning, the Green Batters went on a fourth inning onslaught powered by shortstop Franco Hashimoto. With two outs, Macasaet’s pitching went astray after a walk, due to balls of Cholo Dominguez and an accidental hit by pitch of Kiko Gesmundo. A passed ball then gave Dominguez home to punch in the breakthrough run of the game.
Back-to-back walks of Paul Naguit and Josh Salinas loaded the bases for the Taft-based squad. With a strike and two balls, Hashimoto connected with a long fly to right field for a triple that brought home all the runners. MVP candidate Francis Salud was able to bring home Hashimoto with a line single to center field to cap the five-run two-out rally.
“Sabi ko sa kanya, kahit na nilagay ko siya sa last [of the] batting order, para na rin siyang nasa batting order,” former UAAP champion and current La Salle head coach Joseph Orillana said about Hashimoto. “Yung hitting niya alam ko nandun anytime tatama siya. Tiwala lang talaga.”
One of the top rookies this season, Gino Tantuico, tried to rally the Blue Eagles at the bottom end of the inning with a solo home run after just the first pitch. Chong Ramos was then able to tag Barandiaran with a double, and moved to third base after a passed ball. However, Ramos was again left stranded after three consecutive outs on the next batters.
After a disastrous fourth inning, the Blue Eagles coaching staff relieved Macasaet of pitching duties for Miguel Dumlao. A single by rookie Ignacio Escano glanced the glove of third baseman Javi Macasaet for a base hit. A fielders choice later on gave La Salle the corners with one out. Sophomore Kiko Gesmundo then brought home Escano with a sacrifice fly to center field to put the Green Batters up five runs once more.
Gaining the momentum from the past inning, the top of the Ateneo batting order continued the wave into the fifth inning. A single by Banzon sparked the rally, and was followed by a double by Marco Mallari to give Ateneo prime scoring position with no outs and heavy hitter Kai Furusawa at-bat. Furusawa brought the two runners home at just the second pitch with a laser to left field for a single.
As Barandiaran seemed fatigued, he was retired from the mound in favor of Diego Lozano. Lozano and the La Salle defense went for a huge 1-4-3 double play to halt the rally, while a groundout of Tantuico ended the inning.
With their lead down to just three runs, King Archer Carlos Muñoz provided an insurance run at the top of the seventh inning. Muñoz tripled to right field to open the inning, while a sacrifice fly to center field by the next batter, Cholo Dominguez, provided one more run for last season’s runners-up.
On the other end, Lozano held his end of the bargain for the Green Batters. In the five innings he pitched, Lozano gave up just one hit and was able strike out six Ateneo batters. Moreover, he was able to strand four runners, including Banzon at third base during the seventh inning.
“Yung laro niya parang isa na sa mga senior. Pagkamahina loob mo diyan kakainin ka ng buhay ng mga Ateneo batters,” Orillana said about Lozano.
The Green Batters were able to punch in one more run at the top of the ninth inning after Dominguez double to right field to bring home Muñoz. At the bottom end of the inning, Lozano struckout Marquis Alindogan, while Banzon grounded out to first base for two outs. After a walk off Mallari, clean-up hitter Kai Furusawa grounded out to secure to give Game One to the Green-and-White.
Muñoz and Hashimoto provided the offense for the Green Batters. Muñoz was able to punch in two runs in the game while Hashimoto, even in going just 1 for 4 at-bat, had three RBIs.
On the other hand, Banzon went 4 for 5 at-bat but was only able to punch in just one run. Furusawa had two RBIs in the game as well.
The Blue Eagles were able to connect on eight hits as a team. However, nine of their runners were left stranded. “Sabi ko lang sa pitchers na take it one bat at a time tapos depensahan lang nila. Huwag nilang pabayaan na maka-score ng ganun ganun lang yung Ateneo,” Orillana said about the team’s defense that grounded the Blue Eagles.
Looking forward to Game Two on Monday, March 14, the Southeast Asian Games gold medalist is hoping that his team stays grounded. “I just told them to stay humble and stay within the gameplan,” he closed.