LAKEWOOD — In one of the biggest moments of its season, Pueblo West turned to a junior who hadn't pitched all year.
Largely because of that decision, the Cyclones are assured of a chance to play for the Class 4A state baseball championship next week.
Julian Lucero entered the game with runners on first and second and no outs in the bottom of the fifth. Pueblo West led Windsor, the No. 1 overall seed, 6-3.
Lucero promptly struck out Braden Martinez, who homered earlier. Then he forced a ground out — which did lead to a run — but he followed it with another strikeout. Crisis averted.
"It's just all about being a competitor when you're out there on this stage," said Lucero, who also plays for the school's boys basketball team.
The Cyclones went on to escape with a 7-6 victory over Windsor, and are the lone remaining team in the 4A state tournament.
"He's a competitor — he's a hooper — so when you're an athlete and a competitor, we trust that," said Pueblo West coach Dan Sanchez. "We love that they're athletes and they're gonna compete. ... If we didn't think he would do that, we wouldn't have put him out there."
This is the third time in the past six seasons that Pueblo West has been the only unbeaten team heading into the final set of games. The Cyclones have never won a baseball championship.
"We've just got to keep on playing like we're playing," Sanchez said.
Tuesday's win wasn't without its share of drama.
Lucero went on to throw a scoreless sixth, including another strikeout, before Windsor started a rally in the seventh. The Wizards' Martinez homered again, Bailey Brachtenbach drew a walk, and Craig Singiser singled. It was 7-5 at that point with just one out, and Pueblo West brought Nate Denniston in to close for the second day in a row.
Josh Barker then singled, but Pueblo West's Dylan Gist threw a runner out at home. In the top half of the inning, Gist had driven in what would later be the winning run.
"You've just got to make a play, and when your team needs you, you've got to do what you can," Gist said. "If you don't trust yourself, you can't make those plays."
Added Sanchez: "Today, he was huge."
Windsor's Braden Peninger then singled, but the ball hit an umpire up the middle, and changed direction, so the runners already aboard stayed put at second and third, and Peninger at first.
Jake Barker followed that with a bases-loaded walk to make it a one-run game at 7-6.
But Denniston got Windsor's Owen Lockner to ground out to third base to end the game.
"He's a tough kid," Sanchez said of Denniston. "We love that he's out there in that moment. We know that he's not going to fear it."
Now, the Cyclones will face Cheyenne Mountain at noon Tuesday at All-City Field in Denver. On the other side of the bracket, Windsor and Valor Christian will play at 9 a.m.
If Pueblo West wins its game, two teams will remain for Wednesday, and the winner of Windsor and Valor Christian would need to beat the Cyclones twice to win the championship.
If Cheyenne Mountain wins, the Indians would face the winner of Windsor and Valor Christian in a de facto semifinal game Wednesday morning, with the winner of that contest advancing to play Pueblo West in a winner-take-all championship Wednesday afternoon.
Cheyenne Mountain punched its ticket with a marathon 2-hour, 41-minute win over Holy Family that saw the squad pound out 10 hits and draw 10 walks in a 12-5 win.
Chase McCleary had three RBIs in the win, while Michael Ellis and AJ Carpenter each had two.
Devin Dodson was solid in relief for Cheyenne Mountain, allowing just one hit and two walks in three innings. He struck out two.
Holy Family beat Longmont 7-6 earlier Tuesday to eliminate the Trojans.
Two-time defending champion Valor Christian returned to the Final 4 with a 10-0 win over Roosevelt in six innings. Noah Kuzma hit a two-run home run in the first inning, and Ryan Barber and Rafe Kinder each had two RBIs.
Radek Birkholz threw a complete-game for the Eagles, allowing just four hits and two walks. He struck out three.
Earlier, Roosevelt had eliminated Evergreen with a 2-1 win on Wednesday morning.