LAKEWOOD -- Never has the old adage that "baseball is a game of inches" been more true.
Just over 24 hours ago, Green Mountain catcher Justin Akiyama took a 2-2 pitch that was just off the plate. If called a strike, the Rams would have lost to Durango and been eliminated from the Class 4A state baseball tournament. Instead they celebrated as state champions Saturday afternoon with a 10-2 win over the Niwot Cougars.
They earned the right to play the Cougars after defeating Longmont 9-1 in the preliminary game Saturday morning. They did so behind the solid pitching performance of junior Talon Schaller. He threw a complete game, giving up only two hits and a single run against the Trojans. He was so efficient in the first game that Rams coach Brad Madden didn't hesitate to send Schaller out to start the championship game.
"He looked so good in the first game and only threw 72 pitches, mowing through (Longmont) pretty easily," Madden said. "We knew we were going to have to use him again anyways so we figured with only the half-hour break (between games) let's just run him out there and (score) as many as we could and he just started mowing them down."
Between the two games, Schaller threw 12 innings, giving up four total hits and one run on the day. He only surrendered a single walk between the two games. He had to be pulled after the fifth inning of the state championship game due to CHSAA rules limiting a pitcher to 12 innings in a 72-hour span.
Prior to his last inning, the Rams bats gave him a big enough cushion to put Schaller in line for his second win of the day. A single and a walk put runners on first and second with sophomore Wyatt Featherston stepping up to the plate. He worked the count full then blasted a home run to left-center to put the Rams up 4-0.
"I knew it was out of the ballpark, I felt amazing about it," Featherston said. "I knew I needed to drive in my buddies and I looked for my pitch and I got one, driving it out of the yard and it felt amazing."
Schaller finally gave way to Josh Ramirez who threw a complete game against Durango on Friday, and although he gave up two runs in the final two innings, he never let the Cougars get comfortable and was able to slam the door shut for the Rams.
As solid as the Rams were on the mound, the Cougars never looked comfortable. Green Mountain was able to chase off Niwot ace Bryan Meek in the fifth inning. The sixth inning turned into a nightmare for the Cougars who gave up six runs -- four of which were walked in either Nick Elrod or Aldair Cintora.
But the rally aside, the Rams are state champions because of the solid performance of Schaller through the two games.
"I'm just happy to be out here, man -- what a day," he said after the game. "Coach didn't really tell me what the plan was, but I knew I was going to pitch two and then Josh would finish. He just told me to give it my all and I was just happy to be there."
The win is a nice send off for the three seniors in the Green Mountain lineup. Since Akiyama's walk-off hit Friday, the Rams have been energized and borderline destined to walk away as champions.
"That's kind of the way we've been living our last four weeks, we've been down to our last out and our last strike," Madden said. "Our kids will not give up. They will keep fighting and keep fighting."
The Rams will lose three starters from their roster as Akiyama, Andrew Abercrombie and Josh Rogers have all graduated. But the core of this championship team in Schaller, Ramirez, Schaller and shortstop Cole Shetterly will all return next season to try and defend their title.
"It's a tribute to them and the great leadership that they brought to us," Madden said. "Next year is a new year and we'll get back at it in the summer and fall but for right now we're going to enjoy this for at least the next six months."