The Bearcats dodged one punch, but against the top-ranked team in California, the shots eventually landed and knocked the Paso Robles High baseball team out of the CIF- Southern Section Division 2 playoffs.
The home team held Great Oak without a run in the first inning despite the Wolfpack loading the bases with no outs on the Bearcats’ freshman pitcher.
But the Temecula school ranked No. 1 in California and No. 5 in the country by MaxPreps.com scored six in the third and got a stellar performance on the mound from Zack Noll to advance to the quarterfinals with a 9-4 win Tuesday over PAC 7 champion Paso Robles.
“We didn’t play our best game today, but that’s not really the issue or anything,” Bearcats coach Derek Stroud said. “They are who they are — No. 1 in the state.”
Four errors didn’t help Paso Robles’ cause, but against Noll, who struck out eight and allowed just two hits in six innings, offense was difficult to come by.
“We couldn’t really put the bat on the ball much, but that happens,” said junior shortstop Bailey Gaither, who had the Bearcats’ only two hits. “They’re a good ball club. We’re not going to take anything away from them. We didn’t play our best game, but we came out and played our hardest.”
Paso Robles was held without a baserunner for the first three innings, and it wasn’t until the Bearcats fell behind 8-0 that their small-ball approach clicked and they got on the scoreboard. Ben Mecham reached on an error, and Gaither followed with Paso Robles’ first hit, a single into right field. Taylor Holden bunted them up a base, Mecham scored on a passed ball and Jonathan Baldwin’s groundout to first base scored Gaither.
“We haven’t really seen pitching like that,” said Holden of Noll, a 6-foot-5 sophomore left-hander whose fastball stayed in the mid-80s. “He changed speeds a lot.”
Noll had five strikeouts through two innings, getting Matt Keller to swing at a high fastball clocked at 85 mph to strike out the side in the second.
Noll improved to 10-0 on the year, and was the Wolfpack’s No. 2 pitcher behind USC-bound Brad Wegman, who played at third Tuesday.
“He had great command,” Stroud said of Noll. “He’s tall and lanky, but sometimes the gun doesn’t measure how hard the stuff looks. He’s throwing 82-85, but the ball got on us pretty good.
“That’s not a bad No. 2 guy to have.”
Freshman Nolan Binkele started on the mound for Paso Robles (20-7-2), escaping a worrisome jam in the first inning, when he led off the game by letting the first three batters reach base.
Binkele got Great Oak’s cleanup hitter, Nevada-bound Mitch Hayes, to ground into a double play and Wegman to hit an inning-ending grounder to Gaither at shortstop.
“We were thankful the game wasn’t blown open in the first,” Stroud said. “We dodged a bullet.”
Binkele pitched into the third before allowing his fourth walk and a bunt single to put runners on the corners with one out. Senior Paul Andersen brought better command, throwing 27 of his 39 pitches for strikes, but the Wolfpack teed off with a two-run triple and a pair of doubles to go ahead 7-0 through three.
Andersen’s placement “probably wasn’t where he wanted it to be,” Stroud said, “but the better those hitters are, the smaller room for error there is.”
Baldwin pitched the final 3 1⁄3 innings, allowing five hits, two walks and one run for the Bearcats, who went just 6-20 last year but blossomed with a 20-win campaign this season.
“That’s a pretty good turnaround,” Stroud said. “I just appreciate the effort they put in and their willingness to come together as a ball club. It didn’t end well today, but last year, if someone said, ‘Would you be thankful for the opportunity to play these guys?’ I’d take it.
“I look at our school, and we’ve kind of gone through a down period athletically.
So to win a league championship and winning a game in CIF (last week against Yucaipa) — that’s what Paso’s been known for but we haven’t had a lot of that in the last few years. So hopefully, this can be a start, not just for this sport, but for other sports to come.”
Paso Robles’ final two runs came in the seventh, when Great Oak reliever Drake Mekkers walked three batters and Colin Lux’s one-out grounder to second base scored Christian Erickson and Kai Bedell.
It was too little, too late against the Wolfpack (23-6) — the top-seeded team in the bracket, which will head the nearly five hours back to Temecula with a quarterfinal berth.
But considering the expectations prior to the season opener, the Bearcats didn’t walk off Barnhart Field with their heads down.
“We were the underdogs from the get go this year after going 2-16 in league last season,” Gaither said. “To come back and win 20 games and the league, and then to win our first CIF game in a while, it was a great season.”