Independence's title hopes fall short in extra-inning, 3-2 loss to Madera-Liberty in D-IV final

VISALIA — The Independence baseball team certainly deserved better.

But in the end, in a close game where every mistake is magnified, the Falcons’ chance at the program’s first Central Section title fell short with a series of missed opportunities.

And defending Division-IV champion Madera-Liberty made the most of it..

The Hawks’ McGuire Smith lined a base hit into left field with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning, plating an unearned run for a 3-2 walk-off victory on Saturday afternoon at Valley Strong Ballpark.

“It’s a tough one to lose,” Independence coach Chad Shelton said. “I’m happy for our guys and the way we competed, going to extras and just the year that we had, taking the approach every day to get better.”

Top-seeded Madera-Liberty improved to 30-2, winning the school’s second straight D-IV title and fourth championship in the past seven years. The Hawks also won Division-V crowns in 2018 and 2019.

The No. 7 Falcons (16-16) entered the postseason on a three-game losing streak after a 3-9 campaign in South Yosemite Valley League play.

But the team came to life in the playoffs, defeating No. 10 Arvin and then upsetting No. 2 Taft and No. 3 Tulare-Mission Oak with a gritty effort that Shelton and his coaching staff preaches on a daily basis.

“I’m just really proud of our guys for the effort they put in all year,” Shelton said. “To get here is pretty special, and the ball falls our way or their way a couple of times, and that’s baseball. It’s tough, but I’m really proud of our guys.”

Independence rode a blue-collar performance from senior starter Brandon Gutierrez and led 2-1 with Falcons ace Isaac Lopez on the mound to close things out.

Lopez, who threw 91 pitches in a complete-game 4-hitter in Tuesday’s 2-0 semifinal win over Mission Oak, gutted through three tough innings before Liberty tied the game with the Falcons just one strike from its first section baseball title.

Clinging to a one-run lead, Lopez loaded the bases with a Smith single, a four-pitch walk and a hit batsmen. With two outs, the Hawks’ Tryce Perez then lined an 0-2 to pitch into right field to drive home Smith to tie the game.

But Ivan Caldera threw out pinch-runner Cody Voolstra at the plate to end the inning and send the game into extra innings.

It was the second runner thrown out at the plate by Independence outfielders. Two innings earlier, left fielder Kaiden Godfrey gunned down Hudson Groh to end the fifth and preserve the Falcons’ 2-1 lead.

With one out in the seventh, Tyler Stansberry made a running, over-the-shoulder catch on a drive to deep center field from Groh for the second out, preserving the lead, if only for the moment.

But in the eighth, a dropped fly ball and a hit batsmen set the table for Smith’s dramatic moment against Independence’s third pitcher, senior Noah Amaya.

Liberty opened the scoring in the first innings when Xaviar Gordon blooped a single into center field, stole second and scored on a single by Daniel Sandate.

The Falcons tied the score in the second, benefitting from a walk, a single by David Baralt, and two hit batsmen — the lastr of which forced in the tying run.

Independence took the lead in the fourth with four hits. Eddie Aguirre got things started with a one-out infield single. Gutierrez and AJ Mosqueda followed with base hits to load the bases and Stansberry drove in the go-ahead run with a sacrifice fly.

The Falcons had a chance for more when Aldo Salcedo singled to keep things moving, but Gutierrez was thrown out at the plate to end the inning.

Gutierrez also led off the sixth with a long triple to right field, but Independence couldn’t get him home.

“It’s not just one pitch,” Shelton said. “We got thrown out at the plate, not getting a good secondary (lead) with two outs. We had a runner at third with nobody out and didn’t cash in. Those are the little things between a win and a loss, and the guys got the clutch hit at the end.”

Although obviously disappointed in the outcome, Shelton had plenty of praise for his team and the program’s first appearance in a section final. The Falcons had previously reached the semifinals in 2015 and 2018, losing both times.

“I love this group,” Shelton said. “I didn’t want it to end. Practice was great every day, and the most coachable group I think I’ve ever had. The love baseball and they love each other and it's just a special group to be around.”