GALT — A two-game lead in the Sierra Valley Conference almost became three for the Liberty Ranch High baseball team.

But the Union Mine squad decreased the Hawks’ lead. Now the chase toward the conference title becomes fun in the foothills on Thursday — despite a 2-1 loss at Galt Community Park on Tuesday, Liberty Ranch has secured at least a co-championship.

Now the best-of-three series is tied at one win for each team; the Hawks recorded a 1-0 win on the Diamondbacks’ field in El Dorado on March 21. On Thursday, Liberty Ranch (12-2 in the SVC, 16-7) returns to Union Mine (11-3 in the SVC, 13-5) for the rubber match.

Union Mine led by the final score entering the bottom of the seventh inning. Then Liberty Ranch’s Anthony Perez singled down the third base line. Next was pinch-runner Devin Maberto, who pinch-ran for Perez. After a bunt attempt and grounder gave Union Mine two outs, the Hawks’ Shane Popoff was hit in the middle part of his back that sent him to first base and moved Maberto to second.

Then Union Mine coach Bill Bishop called a time out. That’s when he pulled winning pitcher Evan Williams off the mound and inserted Russell Moore, who only faced one Liberty Ranch batter. A deep fly ball to right field ended the game.

“He’s just trying to change things up probably,” said Liberty Ranch coach Wade Isbell of the Bishop’s tactic. “At the same time, I had my (number) three hitter up, a guy I expect to put the ball in play. If that ball dropped, I’ve got a run across and a guy at third base.”

Liberty Ranch had its chances to push runners around the bases in the bottom of the sixth and fourth innings. All when the score was 2-1.

Kenny Morgan, the Hawks’ starting pitcher, led off the sixth with by hitting the baseball that bounced up the middle of the Diamondbacks’ infield for a single. After advancing to second on a passed ball, Jayden Baroni pinch-ran for Morgan. But Union Mine got out of the inning with two fly outs and a grounder.

After going down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the fifth, Liberty Ranch’s Merv Cornell singled to left field with one out in the fourth. Union Mine picked up its second out of the inning on a grounder, then the Hawks’ Anthony Perez drew a walk to put runners on first and second. But another grounder led to Union Mine’s third out.

Liberty Ranch scored its only run in the bottom of the second inning with one out. Cornell reached first base on a Union Mine infield error. Then he scored on a single to left field by Michael Ramirez, who fouled off more than a half-dozen pitches prior, to make it 2-1.

“We’ve got a lot of quick guys,” said Isbell of his Hawks’ roster. “If we can put the ball in play, we give ourselves opportunities.”

Union Mine jumped out to a 2-0 in the top of the second inning. Gage Meyers singled to right-center field and moved to second when Morgan was called for a balk. After a Diamondback struck out, Michael Keane singled to right field that moved Meyers to third base. Donovan Scott drove Meyers and Keane home with a single to right field.

The Hawks and Diamondbacks each had six hits in the game. Popoff, along with Morgan, Cornell, Ramirez and Perez, each had a hit.

Morgan went the distance for Liberty Ranch. He struck out two and walked two. Williams also struck out two and walked only one Hawk batter.

“We drove their pitcher up the pitch count; he was close to the maximum,” said Isbell, as the Sac-Joaquin Section bylaws state that pitchers can throw no more than 110 pitches at the start of a new week.

Thursday’s game is pretty simple for Liberty Ranch and Union Mine. If Liberty Ranch wins, it’s an outright SVC title. If the Diamondbacks win, they will share the crown with the Hawks.

“This is the spot we want to be in,” Isbell said. “Yeah, we would’ve liked it to take it today on our home field. It’s definitely that rubber match where if we drop one, we’re co-league (champions). But we want it outright. Our guys want it outright. They’ve been fighting hard all season for it. We’ve got one more practice to gear up, get ourselves ready so we can step into their place and take it to them.”

Contact Mike Bush at mikeb@lodinews.com. Follow on Twitter: @MBushLodiSports.

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