Will Stroud ranged to his right deep in the hole between shortstop and third base to backhand a ball that seemed destined for the outfield.
The Paso Robles High School junior stood, planting his surgically repaired left knee, and gunned down the runner at first.
The highlight play was one of many made by the Bearcats’ defense behind starting pitcher Nolan Binkele in Paso Robles’ 3-0 victory Tuesday over visiting Riverside Poly in the second round of the CIF-Southern Section Division 3 baseball playoffs.
Perhaps more remarkable was the fact that this time last year, Stroud was watching his team from the dugout. The star shortstop tore his ACL last fall in week eight of Paso Robles’ football season. Junior third baseman Wyatt Gidcumb did the same the previous week.
The injuries forced both to miss all of last baseball season, when Paso Robles was unable to make it out of the first round of the playoffs after winning its wild-card game.
They’re back this year.
And not surprisingly, the Bearcats went on to win a share of the PAC 8 title and finish with an 18-3 league record. Stroud and Gidcumb have anchored the left side of the infield, while junior Oscar Rendon, who moved over to shortstop in Stroud’s absence last season, is back at second base.
“It’s really exciting (to be playing),” Stroud said. “It’s a great atmosphere. I’m just glad to be out here. I like the group of guys we have, and it’s good to be back.”
Stroud is hitting .330 on the year with 22 RBI, and Gidcumb is batting .250 with 13 RBI. Their biggest impact is perhaps felt in the field.
Paso Robles head coach Derek Stroud said that with Will Stroud and Gidcumb back, he now has the luxury of fielding a shortstop-quality defender around the infield.
“All three of those guys are shortstops, and I think it makes for a pretty strong infield,” Derek Stroud said.
‘I try to forget’
But before the three could return to the diamond, there was work that needed to be done. The road back from an ACL injury is not an easy one.
It took Stroud nine months of rehab — strengthening the muscles around the knee — to return.
“You’ve got to build everything back up from square one, pretty much,” he said.
For Gidcumb, it took two months to even have surgery. Once under the knife, doctors found out that Gidcumb had also torn his meniscus in addition to his ACL.
Gidcumb said he couldn’t walk for a month afterward, but he was walking and jogging after two. After five months, he was sprinting, and returned to playing sports nine months after the injury.
“I try to forget as much as possible,” Gidcumb said of the injury. “I try to put myself in that situation again to get over the fear (of it happening again).”
Like Stroud, Gidcumb is happy to be back on the playing field.
“It was a pretty big blow to me because I love baseball,” Gidcumb said.
He added that he wanted to come back stronger and faster for this season.
Pitching staff peace of mind
Their return has made an already stellar pitching staff even better.
On Tuesday, Binkele delivered another stellar CIF performance, facing 24 hitters — three over the minimum — in a complete game victory despite swirling winds for much of the game, which made even pop-ups anything but routine. The senior left-hander was efficient, tossing only 76 pitches while walking two.
Binkele has only benefited from the return of Stroud and Gidcumb. Binkele isn’t a strikeout pitcher and freely admits it — meaning there’s usually plenty of the defense to do in his games.
“I’m not blowing it past people,” he said. “I try to mix things up.”
Binkele struck out only one batter in Tuesday’s game, but induced ground balls and pop-outs that his defense handled.
“Last year, when I’m up there (on the mound), I felt like I needed to place the ball and make sure they don’t hit it,” Binkele said. “This year, I’m not afraid to let them hit the ball. It’s relieving, really, to know that I can count on everyone.”
The Bearcats scored all three runs in the first inning, taking advantage of two Riverside Poly errors and sending nine batters to the plate.
Binkele also helped his own cause, singling home freshman Hunter Barnhart.
The Bearcats (25-7) will play host to Quartz Hill in the quarterfinals at 3:15 p.m. Friday.
CIF-Southern Section baseball and softball playoff scoreboard
Paso Robles 3, Poly (Riverside) 0 (Division 3)
Katella 11, Atascadero 2 (Division 5)
La Canada 6, Templeton 0 (Division 5)
Coast Union 8, Albert Einstein Academy 1 (Division 7)
Quartz Hill at Paso Robles, 3:15 p.m.
Coast Union at Boron, 3:15 p.m.
Knight (Palmdale) 14, Palmdale 5 (Division 3)
Beckman Arnold (Irvine) 4, SLO High 1 (Division 4)
Godinez 2, Templeton 1 (Division 5)