GREELEY — The importance of having an ace pitcher on the mound in a state championship game can’t be understated.
For Valley, that ace was Jose Mercado, who had seven strikeouts. The junior was magnificent against Eaton in a 17-1 win at Butch Butler Field, giving up only three hits and one run in six innings to help seal a Class 3A baseball championship for the Vikings. The team in black, white and gold also had 13 hits of their own.
“He just battles when he’s up there,” Valley coach Steve Kissler, in his 12th season with the Vikings, said. “He gets after people, he’s aggressive in the zone and he’s not afraid of anybody. That’s the bulldog mentality he’s had all season long.”
As a result, Valley claimed their first baseball title since 1983. They are now tied with Cherry Creek for the third-most titles in the sport with eight.
Eaton was also able to save a talented and fresh arm for the final game. Senior Anders Swanbom (2.83 ERA) took the mound. The Vikings countered with Mercado, who was boasting a 7-2 record and a 3.21 ERA entering Sunday.
“Going into state, I don’t think we were one of the favorites to win but we did what we had to do,” Mercado said. “Eaton is a good team. I knew I had to come in and throw strikes, because they can hit. Defense did their job and I kept them off balance.”
Valley (19-7) had been the last unbeaten in the bracket at 3-0 with wins over Faith Christian 2-1, Eaton 15-12 and Colorado Academy 7-2. In an elimination game, though, Eaton took out the Vikings 5-3 on Saturday. The Reds (17-9) had momentum after beating Colorado Academy 5-3 in the semifinals on Sunday morning as well.
But, Mercado gave his team a lift in the final game. He started off by sitting down the top of Eaton’s lineup in order in the first inning. He did the same in the second. Then, Valley started swinging the bats.
Shawn Chacon had a clutch RBI single to give the Vikings a 1-0 lead in the third inning. In the next frame, the Vikings had three straight singles capped by a Dillon Rudd RBI to make it 2-0. Jose Mercado tacked on another RBI single to make it 3-0. Valley had eight hits and Eaton zero by that point in the game.
Swanbom was replaced on the mound by Walker Uyemura for Eaton after four frames, but Ivan Rodriguez singled to drive in another run in the fifth and push the margin to 4-0.
Rudd had another RBI single with the bases loaded to lift the Vikings to a 5-0 lead. Triana walked in a run after that. A wild throw by new pitcher Micah Dorsey allowed another run to score. A run was added on an error.
Before Eaton knew what hit them, Valley had scored five in the fifth to open up an 8-0 lead.
Noah Brown ended Mercado’s no-hit bid with a single with two outs in the bottom of the fifth. Travis Cunningham singled for Eaton as well, but Mercado forced a grounder to end the inning with nothing added to the scorebook.
Then, Valley’s Raul Rios put the mercy rule, a ten-run rule, into play with a two-run single in the sixth with no outs against pitcher CJ Blaskowski. A wild pitch allowed Rios to cross home plate and open an 11-0 margin. The Vikings tallied six more runs for seventeen. They scored nine total runs in the top of the sixth.
Eaton finally put a run on the board as an error allowed Dorsey to score in the bottom of the sixth.
“We told the guys after the loss yesterday that they just needed to shut that one out,” Kissler said. “We didn’t play as crisp as we could’ve, but we knew what we needed to do.”
As has been the case so often in 3A, the road to a championship went through the Patriot League. Speaking to the level of competitiveness in the area, Valley and Eaton (11 titles, most in Colorado history) tied for third in the league standings behind University and Resurrection Christian. But both heated up in the postseason.
“You get battle-tested a lot in the league,” Kissler said. “There are not a lot of days off. It gets you ready for the postseason.”