A pitcher’s duel between San Luis Obispo’s Jake Niezen and Atascadero’s Zac Austin went down to the wire Tuesday in a hard- fought PAC 7 league battle.
But it was two bases-loaded walks in the bottom of the seventh given up by two Atascadero relievers that decided a 3-2 home win to help the Tigers (12-10, 9-4) remain in a tie for second with Arroyo Grande as the regular season comes to a close next week.
The Tigers started the first game of the three-game series against fourth place Atascadero (11-11-1, 6-6-1) with hard-throwing right-hander Garrett Giovannelli.
But Giovannelli suffered a muscle strain to the deltoid of his right arm and came out of the game in the first inning.
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In relief, Niezen pitched the rest of the way, giving up one run through six innings to keep his team close before the Tigers pulled out the nail-baiting victory.
“Our goal is to win out,” Niezen said. “We know that to give us a chance (for a league title), we pretty much have to do that. It got pretty tense there at the end. I’m just glad we got the win.”
In the bottom of the seventh inning, San Luis Obispo right fielder Joey Benadiba led off with a sharp line-drive double to left that skipped all the way to the wall.
Later in the inning, Brandon Mallory walked, Ryan Anderson had a bunt single that appeared to be a squeeze, but Benadiba held at third. Then, with the bases loaded and two outs, Tigers centerfielder Sinjin Todd took the count to 3-1 against reliever Clarke Ball before walking to tie the game.
“When it got to 3-1, I wasn’t going to swing,” Todd said. “I wanted to make him throw a strike.”
Then, first baseman Domenic Fountain walked against Bryan Kirkpatrick to bring in pinch-runner Mo Moralez for the game-winner.
Some of Kirkpatrick’s pitches appeared to be borderline strikes and, as the Tigers celebrated, some of the Atascadero parents barked complaints as the umpires left the field.
Atascadero coach Paul Teixeira said that he thought that bringing in Ball, who has a team-leading 3.23 earned run average, was the right move considering Todd was 2 for 3 in the game against Austin.
“I think probably some people in the stands think I’m a moron, but if Clarke would have gotten that out, I would have been a genius,” Teixeira said. “I think we played well, and Zac pitched great. We just needed to convert in some of the innings where we left guys on base.”
Niezen got out of basesloaded jams in the third and the fifth innings. He then induced a double play on a one-hopper to shortstop Nick Hill in the seventh after a leadoff single by the Greyhound’s Joe Johnson, who entered batting .373 on the season.
Still, the Greyhounds scored in the seventh on two-out singles by Kelton Torres, Ethan Hicks, and a RBI grounder to left by
Sam Neely that resulted in a close play at the plate for the Greyhounds’ second run.
Despite loading the bases, Austin struck out freshman Jeremy Jess for the second out of the seventh on an outside fastball before being relieved. Austin, a junior righty, entered with a 3.63 ERA.
“I was really trying to just throw strikes throughout the game,” Austin said. “I didn’t want to let guys get on base.”
San Luis Obispo coach Brian Wong said he expects Giovannelli to be back in the lineup today in the game at Atascadero at 4:30 p.m., but he’s not sure if he’ll be a designated hitter or play shortstop.
“That will depend on how he’s feeling,” Wong said. “We’ll just have to see how his arm is.”
Giovannelli led the league in hitting last year with a .456 average, and he’s the No. 3 hitter this year in the Tigers’ lineup.
The series finale will be at SLO Stadium at 4:30 p.m. on Friday.