La Joya High's J.C. Gutierrez (3) pitches against Eagle Pass in a Region IV-6A quarterfinal game at Veterans Field on Friday, May 21, 2021, in Laredo. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

LAREDO — La Joya High junior pitcher JC Gutierrez was dialed in from the opening pitch of Friday’s regional quarterfinal playoff game against Eagle Pass.

In Game 1 of the best-of-three series between the Coyotes and Eagles in the Class 6A playoffs, Gutierrez was near perfect on the mound.

He re-entered the game to pitch the bottom of the eighth inning with his squad locked in a scoreless tie.

The Texas Tech commit set down the first two batters of the inning on a first-pitch ground ball and six-pitch swinging strikeout when Eagles’ shortstop Jacob Ruiz interrupted Gutierrez’s rhythm.

Ruiz laced a line drive to left field for a stand-up double with two outs before swiping third base and home plate, stealing on back-to-back high fastballs to give Eagle Pass a 1-0 walkoff win over La Joya High in eight innings to take the early series lead.

“They played their hearts out. It’s tough to lose like that,” La Joya High head coach Mario Flores said. “I think overall we did pretty good. It came down the last out and the last pitch. Our players are prepared, though, and they’re going to bounce back tomorrow.”

Ruiz’s double, the first extra-base hit of the game for either side, squandered Gutierrez’s gem on the mound for La Joya and ended what had the makings of an elite pitchers’ duel early on between the Coyotes’ ace and Eagle Pass pitcher Sergio Lopez.

La Joya High’s J.C. Gutierrez (3) reacts as he walks off the field at the end of an inning in a Region IV-6A quarterfinal game against Eagle Pass at Veterans Field on Friday, May 21, 2021, in Laredo. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Lopez picked up the win after going the distance in a scoreless eight-inning outing that featured seven strikeouts, no walks and four hits, all of which were singles.

Gutierrez, meanwhile, tallied 12 strikeouts while yielding three walks and a pair of hits during a 112-pitch outing that carried him into the eighth inning. La Joya’s junior hurler entered the night sporting a 9-0 overall record, 1.40 ERA and 94 strikeouts through 55 innings of work on the season.

“JC has been doing this with us all year,” Flores said. “He’s got good character and every time he’s on the mound, he pitches to win. Unfortunately, today was tough but we’ll be ready again tomorrow.”

The Coyotes’ principal problem against the Eagles on Friday came at the plate.

Despite landing runners on base to start the second, fifth, seventh and eighth frames, La Joya struggled to string together consistent contact to move runners across.

The Coyotes had a runner doubled up at second base to end the second and another gunned down trying to steal second base in the eighth, as the team could not push any runners into scoring position.

La Joya High’s Angel Solis reacts after swinging at a pitch against Eagle Pass in a Region IV-6A quarterfinal game at Veterans Field on Friday, May 21, 2021, in Laredo. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

“We had runners on, we just couldn’t execute,” Flores said. “It wasn’t our day offensively. Hopefully tomorrow we’ll be able to rebound.”

The victory lifts Eagle Pass to 20-8 on the season, while the loss drops La Joya High, the District 31-6A champions, to 21-3 overall.

It also creates a must-win Game 2 for the Coyotes at 1 p.m. Saturday at Veterans Field in Laredo. A La Joya win would force a decision Game 3 between the Coyotes and Eagles set to start 30 minutes after the conclusion of Game 2.

“We’ve just got to refocus and play seven innings tomorrow. We have to capitalize when runners are on, then we’ll be successful,” Flores said. “We’ve got to come back tomorrow and take Game 2 and 3. That’s it.”

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