Justine Vela's final pitch -- No. 234 -- may have been her best. And it had to be.
It was the bottom of the 15th inning Friday, her team leading top-seeded Buchanan 1-0 in the Central Section Division I softball championship, and she was facing a .480 hitter in Kelsey Dodd with two runners on.
Twice, the left-handed batter had fouled two-strike pitches before working the count full at Bear Diamond.
Vela took a deep breath, exhaled and fired a curveball that cut into the back third of the plate for a called third strike and the game.
It was the 19th strikeout for Vela (17-6), who pitched a six-hitter in an epic duel with Natalie Rendon (21-4), who countered with a 183-pitch eight-hitter and 10 strikeouts. And it reversed last year's 5-3 win by Buchanan at Stockdale for the D-I title in a matchup of the same pitchers.
Only this time Vela, the one legitimate power pitcher in the section, was better -- much better -- against a 32-3 Bears team ranked 15th in the state by Cal-Hi Sports.
"It definitely was my best game ever," the junior right-hander said after the Mustangs captured their first section title in softball.
"Yes, I was tired," Vela said, "but I was like, 'OK, I need to finish this inning; I'm not tired.' I was really into my zone mentally and wasn't letting it affect me."
Also playing a mental game effectively for the 22-8-1 Mustangs was Kristen Lee.
It was the junior third baseman who was pulled for a pinch-hitter in the fifth inning by coach Amanda Hockett after striking out in the third.
And it was Lee who remained in the game and would get four more at-bats, including a two-out RBI single in the top of the 15th.
Rendon, as brilliant, if not as overpowering as Vela, made one of her few mistakes -- a middle-of-the-plate, belt-high fastball on a 2-2 count that Lee rifled to right-center.
It scored freshman Baylee Boren, who had reached on a two-out infield error and advanced to second on Jazmine Irvin's infield single.
When Lee's drive kissed the outfield grass, she thought, "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh -- Baylee, Baylee, Baylee."
On an otherwise sensational defensive day by Buchanan shortstop Bailey O'Dell, third baseman Taylor Wright and second baseman Dom Selby, Boren got aboard when her grounder to Wright's left kicked off the fielder's glove.
"Taylor made some great plays. I can't fault her," said Buchanan coach Dean Gregory, who was seeking the school's fifth softball title and the Bears' ninth section championship of the school year.
Only Tri-River Athletic Conference neighbor Clovis West, with nine, finished with more as the pair landed a total of 17 of the 23 possible.
Buchanan never had a runner reach third after Amani Proctor singled to lead off the game, advanced to second on Selby's single and stole third. But Vela responded with three straight strikeouts.
"It's an old cliché," Gregory said, "but it was sad to see anybody lose, and that kind of applies. And obviously it hurts a lot more when you're the one that lost."