Watsonville High pitcher Jayden Cardona recorded two strikeouts in a 6-3 win against St. Francis in PCAL Mission Division play April 6. (Juan Reyes/The Pajaronian)

WATSONVILLE—Watsonville High senior Jayden Cardona last week made his debut on the mound for the Wildcatz baseball team, going up against familiar faces who once sat alongside him in the same dugout. 

The right-hander recorded two strikeouts en route to a 6-3 come-from-behind win against St. Francis High in Pacific Coast Athletic League Mission Division play April 6.

It was also redemption for Cardona, who recently transferred from St. Francis, after the ‘Catz previously lost to the Sharks, 5-4, in the teams’ first meeting April 4. 

“The game on Monday was just like, a little upsetting, a tough pill to swallow,” Cardona said. “That’s my rival team, my old team, my school and there are a lot of good players on that team. I just always like to compete, so I just wanted to go for the win.”

Watsonvilles coach James Garza opted to start Cardona in his second game with the Wildcatz against his former school. 

Garza said it also gave his new pitcher the experience of facing his old teammates, a valuable opportunity he may never have again.

“I think he was out there a little nervous like anyone would be but he pitched really well,” Garza said. “He did everything we asked him and kept us in the game.”  

Cardona began the game a bit shaky, giving up three walks and one run on one hit in the first inning. He gave up two more hits in the third including an RBI double by St. Francis senior Noel Aquino, who batted 1-for-4.

Adrian Leon, a sophomore, came in to relieve Cardona in the fourth, shutting down St.Francis’ offense for the rest of the game. Leon had three strikeouts allowing one hit and two walks.

“We were really mad about the last loss to [St. Francis],” Leon said. “ We just wanted to come out and beat them. We had that win-mentality.”

With the win, the Wildcatz snapped a three-game losing streak to keep their Central Coast Section playoff hopes alive.

“We’re a team that came from a lot. We grew up together, we all played Watsonville Little League [baseball] together,” Cardona said. “I just feel like we have that connection and bond and we can do a lot in one inning.”

Brody Legion, a sophomore, contributed with a single and scored twice, and senior Isaak Vargas stole four bases and scored once. 

Cardona, Miguel Lopez and AJ Martinez all scored runs for the Wildcatz.

The Sharks were riding a seven-game win streak and sitting at the top of the PCAL Mission Division standings. 

After the loss, they dropped to third place and now own a 6-2 league record.

“There is no such thing as a good loss but it was a wakeup call to our ballclub that we just need to play better,” said St. Francis coach Ken Nakagawa. “I think we will get better and we’ll get after it on Friday at practice. We’ll be fine.”

St. Francis senior Kai Price, who tossed a no-hitter last month against North Salinas, started on the mound against Watsonville. 

The right-hander gave up two hits and five walks while recording nine strikeouts in six innings of work. 

Price got through the first two innings without conceding. But then he gave up two runs on one hit in the third that allowed the Wildcatz to get back in the game.

“We didnt take care of the baseball very well today,” Nakagawa said. “We’re typically a pretty good defensive baseball team and I think that costs us the ballgame.” 

After the third inning, the Sharks watched their lead disappear. Their offensive production also vanished as they struggled to string together productive at-bats against Leon. 

Aquino, who earned the only extra base hit for the Sharks on Wednesday, currently leads the team this season with six home runs, 19 hits and 23 RBIs. 

Nakagawa said Aquino, who has already committed to Central Christian University in Kansas, put in the work during the offseason and the improvements are showing in his game.

“He’s got a good approach at the plate, has good pitch selection and he’s been swinging at good pitches this year compared to last year,” Nakagawa said. “He obviously worked really hard in the offseason and offensively it shows.”

Price, sophomore JR Ibarra and senior Joel Mendoza each had a base hit for the Sharks (12-2, 6-2), who will play Arroyo Grande High at the San Luis Obispo Tournament on Monday at 4pm.  

Price got an RBI single in the first and Ibarra came around to score a run in the third after a lead off single. 

Garza said the Wildcatz stuck together and kept disciplined at the plate against a really good pitcher in Price.

“They made [Price] work as hard as they could and made him throw a lot of extra pitches,” Garza said. “Towards the end it looked like he was getting a little tired and all our guys had really good at-bats.”

Garza said that mistakes are often what can make up the difference when these two teams play, adding that on the night, his team didn’t make too many. Garza said that St. Francis has a great team, but he thinks the Wildcatz are just as good.

“I think [if] we play them five times, it’s gonna be a toss up, someones gonna win three,” he said. 

The Wildcatz now have a 6-4 record in PCAL Mission league play, sitting just ahead of King City (5-5) and Monte Vista Christian (5-5).

Soledad (9-2) owns the best record in the division, followed by Alisal (6-1) in second.

“We’re right in the middle of the race right now,” Garza said. “Coming in today facing these guys as good as they are, we came with a little bit of a fight and again the guys didn’t give.”

Garza said after losing three in a row, getting a win and improving to a 6-4 record puts them in a much better spot heading into the final stretch of the season.

“We’re gonna be right there at the end but again, it comes down to less mistakes, playing good baseball and discipline at the plate,” he said. “I think we’ll be ok.”

Watsonville (11-5, 6-4) has the alumni game on Friday at 6pm and continues league play at home against Alisal (9-2-1, 6-1) on April 25 at 4pm.

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