Photo by Nick Baker
Buchanan senior Grant Gambrell improved to 11-0 on the season after beating Bullard 5-3 in the D-1 semi-final playoff game, sending them to the championship game against Clovis North. The Bears are currently ranked No. 1 in the nation by MaxPreps and No. 1 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports.
By Paul Meadors, Sports Editor
That exhale you heard around the Clovis area on May 24 at 6:34 p.m. was from the baseball diamond at Buchanan High School.
That’s when Bears second baseman J.T. Arruda circled under a pop-up and caught the final out of a grind-it-out 5-3 win over Bullard, propelling the Cal-Hi Sports No. 1 and MaxPreps national No. 1 team to the D-1 Valley championship game.
They played TRAC rival Clovis North, who beat Clovis 5-4 in their semi-final, in Visalia’s Rawhide Ballpark on Tuesday, May 30, sadly, too late for the Clovis Roundup’s deadline.
Yes, the Bullard game was a win; but it wasn’t easy getting there. Especially after Bullard’s Jake Pizzo’s first inning two-run home run off ace Grant Gambrell put the Bears in an early hole.
How unlikely was this scenario? Let’s put it this way: Gambrell came into the game with a 10-0 record, 0.59 ERA, and only 19 hits coming into the game in 59 innings, with just two of them being extra base hits.
But no worries, after all this is a team with the sparkling 28-1 record for a reason and a coaching staff that constantly preaches staying in the moment, not focusing on the past. In short, there was a lot of baseball left.
After scoring a run in the first and a shut-down second inning from Gambrell, junior slick fielding shortstop Jamal O’Guinn morphed into a game-changer at the plate, launching a three-run home run to left field to make it 4-2, his first of the season – a frozen rope that barely cleared the wall in left field.
“Right off the bat I was telling myself to get to two (second base),” said O’Guinn who’s committed to Fresno State. “When I looked back after getting to first I said ‘finally I got one.’ The momentum was leaning more towards Bullard’s side but I just wanted to get the job done.”
The Bears had their chances to break open the game against senior starting pitcher Pizzo (yes, he of the two-run homer), but couldn’t deliver the knock-out blow, instead relying on the stellar defense Gambrell has called “the best defense in the nation.”
Look no further than the sparkling double play turned by Arruda and O’Guinn in the top of the sixth where Arruda backhanded a ball headed into center field and flipped it to O’Guinn who gunned it to first.
“Grant didn’t have his best stuff today,” said head coach Tom Donald. “But it’s a testament to how good this team is to be able to still win the game.”
A mere few minutes after the final out of the Bullard versus Buchanan game, there was a battle brewing at Clovis North where No. 3 seed Clovis scored a quick two runs in the first inning on Mason Grotto’s double and Daniel Bono’s single off of Bronco starter Michael Williams.
But like their future counterparts, the Broncos responded quickly in the bottom of the first when Mitch Casillas hit a three-run double.
“I knew my teammates would pick me up because they’ve been doing it all year long,” said Williams, a junior left-hander. “That’s why we’ve been successful; we find ways to pick each other up in tough situations.”
James Bell and Noah Haupt provided RBIs in the fifth inning to increase the lead to 5-2 and Brett Walker pitched the final three innings as the No. 2 seeded Broncos (24-6-1) held on to advance to the D-1 Valley title game against Buchanan.
The game wasn’t without drama as Walker struck out Bono on three pitches to end the game with the tying run on first, after the Cougars (23-9) scored two to make it interesting.
“Brett knows how to compete and to have him on the mound in that situation gave us confidence,” head coach Chris Patrick said. “Yes, Clovis high in that situation can always be a threat, but we didn’t play our best today but we competed. We are looking forward to getting a chance at the number one team in the nation.”