Pima coach Ken Jacome, in the midst of guiding the program’s best team in almost 30 years, kept the spirits up with the third-seeded Aztecs in a very brief meeting following the 10-6 loss to No. 4 Arizona Western at Aztec Field on Friday.
The Matadors’ victory extended the best-of-three NJCAA Division I, Region I series to a decisive Game 3 on Saturday at noon.
“I told the guys, ‘You gotta love it being able to play for a region championship on your home field,'” said Jacome, in his fifth season leading the program. “We’ve got to play better. We didn’t play very well.”
Arizona Western’s Roland Marte, a 6-foot-3 and 220-pound right-hander from the Dominican Republic, was the root of the problem. He pitched eight shutout innings, allowing just six hits and striking out five batters without issuing a walk.
Pima (44-16) mustered a six-run rally in the bottom of the ninth with Marte out of the game but the 10-run deficit entering the inning was too massive to dig out of for the Aztecs, who are having their best season since reaching the 1992 NJCAA Division I championship game under coach Roger Werbylo with future major-leaguer George Arias part of the team.
“Their pitcher’s good — he’s beaten us three times this year,” Jacome said of Marte, one of six players from the Dominican Republic on Arizona Western’s roster. “So he’s solid. Tomorrow’s a new day so we’ll be ready to play.”
Pima will try to keep its season alive with a win over Arizona Western (35-17) on Saturday at noon at Aztec Field.
The Aztecs’ softball team (36-23) plays in an elimination game against Central Arizona Saturday at 10 a.m. at Eastern Arizona College in Thatcher.
Rebekah Quiroz’s team must win beat Central Arizona and then defeat Eastern Arizona twice on Saturday to claim the ACCAC Division I, Region I championship and advance to the district tournament.
.@TucsonBadgers alum @benjicazares27 had a two-run single as part of @BaseballPima’s six-run rally in the ninth inning in a 10-6 loss to Arizona Western in Game 2 of the best-of-three NJCAA Division I, Region I championship series. Deciding game tomorrow at noon at Aztec Field. pic.twitter.com/kSVANyY1UG
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) May 12, 2023
Pima’s baseball team has eclipsed the 40-win plateau for the first time in Jacome’s five seasons coaching the program.
The Rincon/University graduate who coached under the late Rich Alday at New Mexico put together highly credible teams the previous two years — 36-14 in 2021 and 38-18 last season — but fell short of advancing with a region title.
The abrupt end to the 2021 season was especially difficult.
Arizona Western eliminated Pima from the region tournament that year with a 13-12 victory. It was the Aztecs’ first NJCAA Region I tournament appearance since 2014. The 14 losses that season were the least amount since 1987. The Aztecs also went 27-11 in ACCAC play, most conference wins for Pima since 1991.
“Obviously as a coach, I’d love to win this and get to the district tournament,” said Jacome, who is assisted by his brother, Jason, a former big-league pitcher who also hails from Rincon/University. “That’s the goal with every season, but to get that coming out of Region I is probably the most difficult any regionals just because of the quality of competition.
“You’ve got to play well or you’re gonna be on the losing end.”
.@ArizonaBaseball 1992 & 1993 teammates George Arias and Chris Gump shared memories of their time successful time together with the Wildcats at today’s Pima playoff game. Gump’s son Rocco is a third baseman with the Aztecs. pic.twitter.com/bPBkJIExPA
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) May 13, 2023
Central Arizona, which won the NJCAA Division I championship last season with Arizona first baseman Kiko Romero selected the Most Outstanding Player, was eliminated as the No. 1 seed in this year’s regional tournament by Arizona Western at home last weekend .
The path through Grand Junction, Colo., where the NJCAA Division I World Series is held May 27 to June 3, is one of the most arduous to achieve a championship in any sport.
Pima got through the first step of sweeping No. 2 South Mountain in two games in Phoenix last weekend in the semifinals to reach the region championship this weekend. If the Aztecs beat Arizona Western on Saturday, they must then play in the West district tournament in Nebraska next weekend before advancing to Grand Junction the following weekend.
“We have the right group to go to Junction,” Pima first baseman Benji Cazares, a former Tucson High standout, said. “We have pitching. We have a great lineup, although we didn’t show it until the ninth inning (Friday). I have a bunch of confidence in these guys. One through nine, we’re one of the best lineups in the nation.”
Former Canyon del Oro standout Andrew Stucky (pronounced Stoo-key), a sophomore outfielder, was selected the ACCAC Player of the Year and was one of six Aztecs to be chosen to either the All-ACCAC Division I, Region I first team or second team. Gage Mestes, a sophomore centerfielder, joined Stucky as a first-team selection.
Other position players chosen who were part of the second team were sophomore catcher/designated hitter Hunter Faildo and sophomore third baseman Rocco Gump, who is the son of former Arizona second baseman Chris Gump.
Freshman right-handed reliever J.T. Drake, who earned 13 saves during the regular season, was also a second-team selection.
Matt Cornelius, a sophomore second-team selection, is one of four left-handed starters for Jacome, who has never in his almost 30 years of coaching had a rotation of only southpaws. Pusch Ridge graduate Alessandro Castro, Anthony Imhoff (Friday’s starter), and former Salpointe standout Jaeden Swanberg are the other lefty starters.
Makes sense with Jason Jacome one of the best southpaws to come out of Tucson.
“It really is uncommon to start all lefties. I mean, we’ve played almost 60 games this year, and we’ve started a left-handed pitcher in every one of them, which might be a college record,” said Jacome, a pitching coach at New Mexico before his hire at Pima.
“I like lefties. We’ve recruited some good ones, and we have some good ones coming next year, as well. We’ll use everybody we need (Saturday). Our pen will be ready to go.”
Swanberg (5-3, 4.50 ERA) will start Saturday in the do-or-die game against Arizona Western.
“We didn’t play our best baseball (Friday) and that’s what happens, but I love the way they competed in the last inning (with the six-run rally),” Jacome said. “We’ve got to carry that over into tomorrow. If they do that, we’ll be fine.”
Jacome’s star-studded coaching staff also includes former CDO head coach and Arizona assistant Keith Francis, longtime legendary Tucson High coach Oscar Romero, former Flowing Wells standout Gil De La Vara as the pitching coach and Tucson High graduate Alex Kelch.
Brian Anderson, a 2005 World Series Champion with the Chicago White Sox and two-time All-American at Arizona who was part of Chip Hale’s staff last season, was one of Jacome’s coaches early this year before he returned to the Chicago area to be part of Northwestern’s staff.
FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER!
ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.