BURBANK – John Hughes was cleared to pitch the day before his sectional final appearance.
Hughes, Nazareth’s sophomore pitcher and a North Carolina recruit, had not pitched more than an inning or two all season due to a forearm strain in his pitching arm.
And perhaps even more.
“Actually, right now, I might have a [partial] tear in my UCL,” Hughes said following second-seeded Nazareth’s 6-0 upset victory over No. 1 seed St. Laurence in the Class 3A sectional final on Saturday.
Hughes, as a freshman, was on the mound for last year’s sectional final, a game in which Nazareth lost to St. Laurence.
It was Hughes’ turn on Saturday to revel in a triumph. He threw five shutout innings with six strikeouts and limited St. Laurence – on its home field – to two hits.
“I kind of wanted my revenge and I got it,” Hughes said. They’re a great team, but we wanted it more.”
How did he do it?
“I just trusted myself. Trusted my skill,” Hughes said. “My talent and with those boys behind me. I felt so confident.”
They payoff is the eighth sectional title in Nazareth program history – all since 2009 – and its first since the Roadrunners took third place in Class 3A in 2018.
“We’ve been very cautious with him all year,” Nazareth coach Lee Milano said of Hughes. “He went to a doctor yesterday, was cleared to pitch….[it was] up to him with what he wanted to do with it. Give him a lot of credit for going out there. Gave us five unbelievable innings.”
“I’m not surprised because he was that good as a freshman,” Milano continued. “So I’m not surprised at that [performance] at all. But pretty tough task to have command when you don’t pitch; he hasn’t really pitched [extended work] since probably last fall. He had great command for not [really] being on the mound. Obviously, showed a lot of heart.”
Nazareth (31-7) will face either St. Ignatius or De La Salle in Monday’s supersectional at Ozinga Field in Crestwood. First pitch is 5 p.m.
The Roadrunners took an early 3-0 lead in the first inning off of St. Laurence’s DJ Helwig. Cooper Malamazian reached on a single and stole second. After Luke Brabham moved him to third on a single, a pickoff throw over to first skipped away and allowed Malamazian to motor home. A pair of walks loaded the bases, and Jaden Fauske then smacked a two-run single.
Malamazian’s RBI single in the second extended Nazareth’s lead to 4-0.
St. Laurence had a potential scoring chance brewing in the fourth inning. Johnny Wendling singled with one out, and after a strikeout Jameson Martin doubled. But on the play Wendling, about to head home, put the brakes on to go back to third, forcing Martin to retreat to second, and was picked off in the rundown.
Helwig was lifted in the fifth inning in favor of Luke Geary, but Nazareth kept its bats going. Fauske singled in a run and Sam Wampler added an RBI sacrifice fly for insurance runs.
The Vikings’ (28-8) best chance to make a dent in the lead came in the fifth. Hughes struck out the first two batters, but St. Laurence managed to load the bases with to a hit batter and consecutive walks. Angelo Luna worked a 3-2 count, but skied a deep fly to center field to end the threat.
Nick Drtina pitched the final two innings for the Roadrunners, forcing four groundouts, a popout and just one single to finish the mission.
“Anytime in the playoffs, you have to take advantage of opportunities,” St. Laurence coach Pete Lotus said. “We had a couple opportunities, but not many. We need to create more. That’s our game is getting on base and being aggressive. It’s hard to do that when you’re behind and obviously when you’re not getting on base a lot.”