WESTMINSTER -- Midway through California Cruisers’ 2021 Colorado 4th of July campaign, head coach Alan Caouette needed to make a change. Not in the lineup, in the coach's box.
“We needed a different energy,” explained Caouette. “Sending a different third base coach out allowed me to focus on calling pitches.”
Caouette’s gamble has more than paid off. Since the change, the Cruisers have rattled off five straight victories, including a 7-0 effort over GA Power – Tunon that vaulted California into Sunday’s 16u Power Pool Championship Bracket.
“The bats have really come alive,” said Caouette. “Earlier in the week, the bottom of our lineup was really producing. Recently, the top of the lineup has come alive and it's given us a much-needed spark.”
The top end of the California lineup went right to work in its crucial contest against the Power on Saturday afternoon at Christopher Fields in Westminster, Colorado. Though leadoff hitter Siena Stickney flew out to centerfield on the first pitch of the game, her hard-hit ball was a sign of things to come.
A walk from Leilani Gonzales setup up Chloe Lesko for the opportunity she’s been waiting for all week.
“I’ve been a big target for pitchers this week,” Lesko said. “I’ve been getting walked and hit numerous amount of times. I’ve been hit at lead five times.
“I just went up there with the idea that if this was my last at-bat, I didn’t want it to go down as another hit-by-pitch, walk or an out. I was really just hunting with a vicious swing at the plate.”
Whatever Lesko was hunting, she found it, killed it and will keep it on her mantle. A no-doubt, two-run blast gave the Cruisers a quick lead, 2-0.
While Lesko drew two more walks on the afternoon, California wasn’t quite done with the first inning yet.
Starting pitcher Avery Relph hadn’t even touched her glove yet before lacing a triple to right-center field. Later coming around to score via Kennedy Hobson’s inch-perfect suicide squeeze, Relph was part of a five-run inning that drained the life out of GA Power.
“We’re not going to hit home run after home run,” said Lesko. “We just went into this past few games thinking we need to jump on it early and not let the opposing pitcher throw her pitch. Instead, find ours.”
Lead in hand, the California faithful might’ve forgiven Relph if she was a bit blasé with a sizable lead. Not so. Relph, a heavy pitch-to-contact arm, was rock solid across all five innings of work.
“I predominantly throw my drop-curve all the time,” Relph said. “I like to throw it inside to try and jam the hitters to let my defense work. My defense does a great job behind me. They are always working back there in every single spot. They work so hard and I couldn’t do it without them.”
Relph did surrender more base hits (three) than strikeouts (one) but it was all part of a masterful game plan that saw the lefty pitch five shutout innings to keep the Power guess all afternoon long.
“My goal was to use some of our other great pitchers yesterday and this morning to have [Relph] ready to go for tonight,” said Caouette. “We knew her drop-curve was going to give these hitters some trouble. She really doesn’t give anyone a chance to get any power behind it. She was awesome.”
California would add runs in the third and fourth innings from a sacrifice fly from Kelly Fyhrie and another beautiful squeeze from Relph to help herself out. Though with the stellar defensive effort from Caouette’s squad, the Cruisers all but assured themselves a spot in Sunday’s Championship Bracket.
“I’m so proud of everyone,” said Relph. “I’m so proud that we could do this, that we could make it this far and who knows might happen tomorrow?”
Relph and company await its opponent for Sunday’s 8 a.m. matchup at Aurora Sports Park. With such an early start on the final day of an already grueling week, Caouette knows just what he’ll be looking for tomorrow morning.
“They’re picking each other up like a sisterhood,” Caouette said. “They hang out together all the time. If they show up tomorrow loose and having fun, I’ll know we’re going to be alright.”