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One pitch.

The Maria Carrillo baseball team was one pitch away from a trip to the North Coast Section championship game this weekend.

The Pumas were up 4-3 in the top of the seventh last week against a talented Northgate team that had already dispatched top-seeded Casa Grande as well as Ukiah. Northgate had runners on second and third but the count was 2-2 with two outs.

Then a Northgate batter ripped a single that scored the runners. The Pumas had their shot to come back in the bottom of the inning with the heart of their order at the plate, but they couldn’t rally any runs.

One pitch.

Had the Northgate batter whiffed, had he sent one into the glove of the Pumas’ first baseman, it’s game over, Pumas win.

Instead, it was game over, Pumas fall short of their goals.

For a sports fan reading the story in Wednesday’s paper, it was a heartbreaker. For anyone who’s ever been there, it’s a gut punch: One pitch away.

But for Pumas coach Derek DeBenedetti, it’s not nearly so simple.

One pitch wouldn’t have changed the outcome of that game. One pitch didn’t send the Pumas home. At least not the way he teaches the game.

“Sometimes we like to focus on the play in the moment, because there is the last one, but it’s a collection of plays,” he said.

“You can go back, you can do that in any sport and second guess and armchair quarterback,” he said. “It’s a collection of plays. Why was it 2-2 at that point? Why was that guy on base? It just happened to be at that moment a guy put a bat on that pitch.

“No game is won or lost on a single pitch,” DeBenedetti said. “Every pitch has a purpose, every play has a purpose and every play plays a part in the outcome of the game.”

Almost every sport has those isolated moments, where one person, one play, one sequence takes on outsized meaning because of the final score. The last-second free throws. The extra-time penalty kick.

It’s hard to undo the thought that it’s those moments that are the reason teams win or lose.

It happened again the next day when Cloverdale’s Bailey Stewart hit a walk-off single that ended the game and sent the Eagles to the NCS championship game. But did Stewart win the game or did Jordyn Turner’s third-inning homer do it? Or was it some other sequence entirely?

“It’s the sum of all things,” said Glenn Brassington, pyschology professor at Sonoma State. “We can be pretty individualistic and forget that there is momentum involved. What happened in the third (inning)?”

And in the end, Brassington said, losing isn’t necessarily bad. And feeling pain about losing, even in a gut-wrenching manner, isn’t necessarily bad.

“Adversity builds strength is the message,” he said. “The way to get that is the interpretation. Adversity builds opportunity for growth.”

Just like muscles grow after breaking down and recovering, the mind can grow after adversity.

“We need adversity, we need grist for the mill. That’s why coaches put players under pressure,” Brassington said.

“A lot of kids will go along and are kept from failure so that when they do have one, they lose it,” he said.

“Think about the language we use in business, ‘Failing your way to the top,’ ” he said. “It’s heartbreaking, you really wanted it, you put out everything you had. Then, OK, that loss will show you some stuff you need to work on, the vulnerabilities you have.”

Vulnerability seems like the apt word.

Sport asks us to put ourselves out there. Every time an athlete steps on the field or court or track, they are exposing themselves to the joys of winning but also the pain of losing.

It’s real.

“Life is great and baseball is great when the ball bounces your way,” DeBenedetti said. “But more importantly, how do you react when things don’t go your way? Do you pick yourself up or pack it in? They never packed it in. They always picked themselves back up regardless of the situation. They never stopped trying.

“I think the memory of being there and competing and knowing that they had given forth their best effort, that is going to override the ache.”

But the ache is still there. It will be for awhile.

DeBenedetti saw his guys with their heads in their hands in the dugout, knowing for their team there is no tomorrow.

“It was difficult and it will be difficult and it should be difficult because it does mean something to them,” DeBenedetti said.

“If the experience is worth having a memory over, a good feeling or a bad feeling, it means it was worth their time,” he said. “That is what we want from our young men or kids — for them to care, care enough to have a feeling.

“They cared enough for it to matter to them,” he said.

And that’s why we play.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”