When pitcher Cooper Benson went down earlier this spring with an intercostal muscle strain — a painful rib injury — it would have been easy to think that the San Luis Obispo High baseball team’s chances in 2017 were sunk.
Benson was expected to lead the Tigers’ pitching staff after the graduation of Jeremy Jess and Jake Rodgers from last year’s PAC 8 championship team that advanced to the second round of the CIF-Southern Section Division 3 playoffs. Just a sophomore, the hard-throwing lefty has already given a verbal commitment to play at Arizona State University after graduation.
But Benson is on his way back — striking out five in two innings of work during Tuesday’s 5-0 win over Atascadero — and so are the Tigers.
“It feels good. Everything feels good,” Benson said. “I got a little tired there in the second (inning). I haven’t thrown in a while, so I’m working back into it.”
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The innings were just his second and third of the season after tallying 48 2/3 last year. And without Benson anchoring the rotation, San Luis Obispo suffered, spending the first half of the season in the bottom half of the PAC 8 standings after losing its first three series against league opponents — first-place Paso Robles, second-place Righetti and third-place Arroyo Grande.
But the Tigers (13-9-1 overall, 9-8 PAC 8) have now won 11 of their last 14 — including rattling off seven straight league wins before a 4-2 extra-innings loss Wednesday to Atascadero. San Luis Obispo and Atascadero are tied for fourth place — and the final postseason spot — heading into Friday’s series finale.
Needless to say, few teams will likely want to meet the Tigers in the first round should they make the playoffs — when regular-season records go out the window and whichever team gets hot at the right time can make a deep run.
“Early on, it was a matter of we were missing guys, and we needed the young guys to step up. And luckily they did,” San Luis Obispo head coach Brian Wong said. “We didn’t really expect that, but it’s awesome when it happens.”
Wong said he plans to give Benson a few more outings before putting him back into the rotation — hopefully just in time for the playoffs.
Benson’s injury hasn’t been the only one to plague San Luis Obispo. Injuries to key players such as Brooks Lee (starting second baseman and closer) and Bryce Ramirez (starting shortstop and starting pitcher) forced Wong to once again lean on younger players — a key component for the Tigers last season.
Freshman Milo Merk was one such player. Wong approached him after a preseason scrimmage and told Merk he would get an opportunity to play on varsity.
“(Wong) said, ‘Hey, you’re going to be spending a couple weeks with us,’ ” Merk said. “At that point, I just went along with it and started hitting, but I didn’t think it would be long term.”
Those few weeks turned into the rest of the season for Merk, who went 2 for 3 with three RBI in Tuesday’s win.
“He stepped up and stuck around,” Wong said, adding that Merk can play infield and outfield.
Merk isn’t the only newcomer having an impact. Junior Ollie Hicks threw five shutout innings in Tuesday’s win, and sophomore Benny Rodgers allowed one unearned run in 6 2/3 innings Wednesday.
Hicks allowed two hits, two walks and had six strikeouts. The lefty helped his own cause from the plate, going 4 for 4 with four singles.
Ramirez has picked up more innings as a starter with the injury to Benson after originally being penciled in as the starting shortstop. The right-hander has a 3-2 record and has thrown 26 2/3 innings. Expect the senior to start Friday’s game at Atascadero.