Arroyo Grande High right-hander Morgan Smith took the mound Wednesday evening opposite the defending PAC 8 champion Paso Robles baseball team.
Before the sun even began to graze the horizon, Smith’s Eagles held the inside track to this year’s title.
The 5-foot-11 senior threw a masterful complete-game two-hitter, and Arroyo Grande stayed perfect in league play by handing the visiting Bearcats their first PAC 8 defeat of the year, 7-1.
“He gets the ball, and he works so quickly that our defense stays awake and they play really good defense behind him,” Eagles coach Brad Lachemann said. “He’s a fun guy to play defense behind. He’s in the strike zone all the time and there’s no lag. It’s just get the ball and go.”
After a leadoff single by standout speedster Bailey Gaither and an error put the Bearcats (13-3, 6-1) ahead 1-0 before an out was recorded, Smith allowed just two more baserunners — a two-out single by Mark Armstrong and an error in the third — for the rest of the contest.
He struck out four and walked none as his fastball, changeup and curveball all found the zone consistently.
“Just confidence and trust in my defense,” Smith said. “Everything was working today. Getting that first pitch strike was huge.”
The pitching of both Smith and Friday’s starter Jeffery Fernandes has been the biggest improvement this season for Arroyo Grande (9-4, 7-0), which found itself on both sides of numerous high-scoring games last season.
“We could hit last year … but we did struggle a little bit with our pitching,” said senior shortstop Ryan Teixeira, who was 2 for 3 with a pair of singles, a first-inning RBI, a run and a walk. “This year, we’ve definitely stepped up our confidence, which is a good thing.”
Added Lachemann: “We don’t have to feel like we’ve got to press all the time. We’re going to manufacture some runs, and then let our pitching take over.”
That was the winning formula the past year-and-a-half for Paso Robles, which used small ball, sound defense and savvy pitching to win 20 games last year and reel off 12 straight victories to open 2015.
But any time a team commits more errors than hits, it’s tough to win. When that ratio is six-to-two as it was Wednesday, it’s near impossible.
“They played much harder than us today,” Bearcats coach Derek Stroud said. “They deserved everything they got, and we deserved everything we got.”
Three different players made errors in the bottom of the sixth alone, leading to three unearned runs and all but ending any hope of a comeback.
“Everything went south and we couldn’t recover from it,” said Stroud, whose team will host Arroyo Grande for the second part of the series on Friday. “Hopefully, we can wash it away and start over tomorrow.”
After Gaither, who also struck out and grounded out, scored on an error in the top of the first, the Eagles struck right back on Teixeira’s sharp single to center off starter Nolan Binkele that scored leadoff hitter Anthony Bautista.
Two batters later, designated hitter Carter Thomas launched a double to the left-field wall to score Teixeira and Brayden Pinkerton.
No. 9 hitter Dawson Rubio had two singles on the day, including an RBI knock in the fourth to score Nolan Elias and make it 4-1.
Bautista, Anthony Gutierrez and Cameron Hirahara each scored on errors in the three-run sixth.
That was more than enough insurance for Smith, who closed things out in the seventh with his fourth straight 1-2-3 inning, corralling a ground ball and flipping to first for the final out of the game.
“It’s just creates a different feel in the dugout because there’s not that stress that we have to produce offense,” Lachemann said. “We’ve got Fernandes going Friday, who has been our No. 1 this year, and it’s going to be a lot of the same thing: he works quick, throws a lot of strikes.
“We just have to try and keep Gaither off base and see what happens.”