One game this season stands out to Paso Robles pitcher Nolan Binkele.
It was the third game of a three-game series against Atascadero in late April.
“That game, we were just on it. I was pitching good, we were fielding good, we got on the bats — it didn’t happen for us until the seventh inning — but that just shows how hard we were working through the whole game,” said Binkele, a junior. “It was the most fun and intense games of the whole year.”
Paso Robles scored a run in the top of the seventh and eventually pulled out the win against its rival in extra innings.
“That game just set the tone for the streak we had because we saw what we were capable of,” Binkele said.
The Bearcats won their next six games to secure a playoff spot, the team’s third straight.
“We got into a stretch there in league where we were behind the eight ball, and guys battled and got us back into it,” head coach Derek Stroud said.
San Luis Obispo and Arroyo Grande — the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams in the league, respectively — are the teams that put Paso Robles in an early hole. The Bearcats opened the PAC 8 season with a win over Arroyo Grande but lost their next five.
It was a difficult time for the team. In the previous two seasons — one ending in a league championship the other a runner up — Paso Robles had a strong group of seniors to lean on. This year’s team, full of mostly juniors and sophomores, were forced to figure it out on the fly.
“We had guys with experience, guys like (Tribune County Baseball Player of the Year ) Bailey Gaither, Jonathan Baldwin, all those guys out here” junior catcher Mark Armstrong said. “Some of the young guys that were maybe struggling could look to them for guidance.”
The Bearcats’ top four hitters and pitching ace are all underclassmen.
Armstrong is leading the Bearcats, and the PAC 8, with a .455 batting average and 29 RBI. Stroud saw Armstrong’s hitting potential early and moved the bulky right-hander from the third slot to the top of the order following the team’s five-game league losing streak.
“He is not your typical lead-off guy, but he is a guy that gets on base for us. And it seems like it has kind of sparked out offense a little bit,” Stroud said. “He is just a hard worker. He’s a lunchpail guy. He’s going to come in, and it doesn’t really matter what’s going on, he gives you an honest day.”
The move allowed the team’s speediest hitter, former lead-off hitter Christian Erickson, also the football team’s star running back, to move into the second position. The junior has also produced, hitting .356 and stealing a league-leading 16 bases.
The top of the order rounds out with senior Matt Keller and Binkele.
On top of batting cleanup, Binkele shoulders a huge part of the Bearcats pitching load as the team’s marquee starter and occasional closer.
The big left-hander is carrying a 1.16 ERA
“He’s been our most consistent guy,” Stroud said of Binkele. “He battles for us. He’s only had one game where he really didn’t have command, but he is usually is on. He’s the guy we go to when we need a game.”
Coaches usually say the biggest game of the season is the next game, but for Paso Robles that is especially true.
Paso Robles had won eight in a row coming into the regular-season series finale this week against Righetti. But Paso Robles has lost the first two games of the series by identical 6-1 scores.
Friday’s game at Righetti will determine who will finish the regular season as the third seed in the PAC 8 and go a long way toward landing a better seed when the CIF-Southern Section brackets come out Monday.
“I know these guys are going to put those two games behind them and come out strong to finish,” Binkele said.