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Sonoma Stompers pitcher just 3rd woman to win pro game

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Sonoma Stompers manager Takashi Miyoshi wears a necklace with a small “42” charm. Any true baseball fan knows that’s a number signifying immense importance.

Miyoshi respects the historic path blazed by the man who wore that number, the Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson, in becoming Major League Baseball’s first African-American player in 1947.

Miyoshi has forged a track as well, two years ago becoming the first Japanese-born manager in the history of American professional baseball.

So it was with some degree of appreciation that late last week the Stompers manager added another line to the history books by starting female pitcher Stacy Piagno in the independent league game.

Starting the 26-year-old right-hander wasn’t a stunt. It’s not because she’s a girl.

She earned it.

And she won. Her catcher even said “she dominated.”

Piagno, of St. Augustine, Florida, and a gold-medal winner with the U.S. women’s national baseball team in the 2015 Pan-Am Games, became just the third woman since the 1950s to win an American men’s professional baseball game.

“I’m not just out here for a hoax,” she said afterward.

In seven solid innings, the 5-9, 165-pound right-hander allowed just one run and four hits while striking out four and not allowing a walk. The Stompers trounced the Pittsburg Diamonds, 16-1.

Piagno allowed only one hit after the second inning and retired 20 of the final 22 batters she faced.

It was “a great night for Stacy and a fantastic night for baseball,” Stompers general manager Theo Fightmaster said.

“This was a start she’s been preparing for, and she validated the opportunity she was given. That was an incredible performance against a very tough lineup.”

The Stompers are playing good baseball. They already clinched the league’s first-half title with a record of 28-11, giving Miyoshi a little more breathing room to pencil in Piagno, who’d had only a couple relief appearances this year.

It is Piagno’s second season on the Stompers.

Last year, the team signed Piagno, a pitcher and infielder, and outfielder-pitcher Kelsie Whitmore, then 17 and just out of a Temecula high school, to contracts to play in Sonoma. Whitmore, who plays on the women’s national baseball team with Piagno, just finished her freshman year on a softball scholarship at Cal State Fullerton.

Some suspected the signing of the women was a publicity stunt — common enough in the minor leagues, known for sometimes-crazy promotions and wacky fan-engagement antics.

But both women still play for the team.

The Stompers have broken multiple social barriers. Along with Miyoshi’s hiring, two years ago, the team started pitcher Sean Conroy — who became the first openly gay player to ever play professional baseball.

The team let those milestones pass quietly, announcing them afterward.

You can just go for the media attention, or do it the right way, Fightmaster said.

“This was validation,” he said. “It provided some credibility not just for her but for the organization.”

The move to go co-ed came in part from a sponsorship the team entered into with Francis Ford Coppola’s Virginia Dare Winery in Geyserville.

Coppola has said his family played co-ed sports and he wanted to find opportunities to help women get a chance in pro baseball.

In Saturday’s spot start, the Stompers supported their pitcher.

After Piagno gave up a hit to the leadoff batter, who eventually scored, the Stompers answered with four runs in the bottom of the inning and never looked back. They led 7-1 after three, giving Piagno an additional cushion to throw her game.

Initially, Piagno was slated to go three innings.

Her catcher, Isaac Wenrich, said he felt “so honored with the Stacy start.” Wenrich also caught Conroy’s first start and his name is in the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown with the night’s lineup card.

The veteran catcher’s counsel helped keep Piagno on track.

“We talked about no matter what limitations they might put on you, today is your game. After that, I saw a switch in her. I could see her lock in,” he said.

After giving up a run in the first inning, she didn’t get down, Wenrich said.

“I said, ‘Let’s go again. One more inning,’” he said. “‘One more inning’ became our mantra. Then we wanted to get to the fifth so she could get the win. Then we said, ‘Let’s get to the 7th.’”

In her final inning, Piagno dominated, he said: “She made every pitch she wanted to throw.”

Piagno, who says she may become a teacher after her baseball career is over, said she is happy to ride the wave as long as she can.

Having another woman around in Whitmore helps.

She said there has been no outward resistance to their inclusion on the roster.

“We’ve felt nothing but support from our teammates and everyone else,” she said. “It is important to us that we get our chance to compete and that we’re successful at that, because it proves that we’re not just here because we’re girls. We can compete.”

Miyoshi said he has no set pitching rotation, so no firm plans to start Piagno again soon. She has two relief appearances this year.

“But now we know she can go seven innings,” he said. “She has to be ready for any role.”

He said he hasn’t felt any opposition from other teams or fans about the women on the roster either. But he suspects the Diamonds were pressing after being shut down by a woman inning after inning on Saturday.

He understands all eyes are on Piagno and Whitmore.

“They are icons for young girls,” he said.

“Like with Jackie Robinson, there will always be some people against it. He opened up the door.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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