Mesquite shortstop Alex Murrieta has been turning in defensive gems all season. So much so they're taken for granted. As a hitter his big hits have been few. Not the case Tuesday afternoon.
Murrieta lined a two-run double with two outs in the second inning to provide plenty of offense for No. 8 Mesquite's ace of the day James Harrington in the Wildcats' 3-0 victory over rival and No. 22 seed Gilbert High in a Division I state baseball tournament elimination game at Tempe Diablo Stadium.
Mesquite (21-11) staved off elimination for the second time and advances in the loser's bracket to face the winner of Tuesday's late game at Diablo between No. 3 Horizon and the west side's surprise team, No. 20 Liberty. Mesquite's Thursday game is set for 4 p.m. at Diablo. Gilbert, which stunned everyone with three straight playoff wins, closed the season 18-15.
Murrieta, a 5-foot-10, junior, has batted deep in the order most of the season and took up the No. 9 spot Tuesday. He entered the game hitting .238. A hitting adjustment late in the year had him swinging better. Nothing lit up the face of Mesquite coach Jeff Holland than Murrieta's two-bagger.
“He's been hitting better, and that was the big hit,.” Holland said. “He's been squaring it up a lot. He got a little lucky (Gilbert played Murrieta quite shallow). The baseball gods were smiling on him.”
Murrieta said easing up on a his crouch at the plate and standing taller seemed to make a difference. He said he got a fastball where he liked it. That hit made him 2-for-10 with 3 RBI in postseason.
The hit off hard-luck loser Chase Merriman paved the way for Harrington to do his thing. Harrington allowed just two hits — singles in the third and sixth. He walked three and struck out three in going the distance. He benefitted from the defensive play of the game in the top of the sixth — by who else — Murrieta.
Gilbert had runners at first and third with two outs in the sixth. The Tigers' Zack McElyea hit a sharp grounder up the middle destined for center field. Murrieta dove to his left, planted himself and fired a strike to second for the force to end the inning.
“That was the play of the game, a game-changer,”” Holland said. “He doesn't glove that they have a run and are still batting.”
Merriman, who also has been outstanding pitching in the postseason, scattered seven hits. He walked two and struck out two. Mesquite tacked on an extra run in the sixth on a double by Nic Gurevitz and and RBI single by Josh Webster.
Left-hander Matt Heibult and Harrington have been a potent 1-2 punch and have been at their best in Mesquite's four playoff games. Heibult tossed a complete game in beating Mesa Mountain View and threw six strong innings in last Saturday's 9-2 extra-inning win over Sandra Day O'Connor. George Valenzuela followed Heibultwith three shutout innings to close out SDO. Harrington's other outing was a 2-1 loss May 8 to Hamilton. Mesquite has allowed five runs in four playoff games.
“The double Hs have done well,” Holland said. “Right now we have to go with the hot hand, and its them. They've been getting enough rest and we tried to limit innings during the season so if this happened they could be ready.”