The crack of the bat, the pop of the glove and the promise of the upcoming Spring can only mean one thing: baseball season is here.
The defending Valley champion Clovis High Cougars looked to get the campaign off to a strong start against the Bullard Knights Tuesday afternoon.
And for a long while, it looked as if they might do just that, but a shaky bullpen outing and unfortunate infield defensive miscues proved too much to overcome in the Cougars 2-1 defeat in the first round of the Coca-Cola classic.
If the Cougars are going to get back to where they want to be at the end of the season, they will have to do it with dominant pitching, and senior hurler Noah Beal gave them that and then some in his first outing of the season.
Beal was fantastic against the Knights, pitching five hitless innings of shutout ball, including seven strikeouts and three walks.
“I felt good. My fastball was pounding the zone. They made me throw a few more strikes with the curveball and offspeed,” Beal said. “Overall, a pretty good first outing.”
But in order to get the victory, the offense needed to step up to match Beal’s mound dominance. And in the third inning, the bats woke up.
After first baseman Mick Backowski led off the inning with a single up the middle. The next two hitters grounded into fielder’s choices, leaving it up to center fielder Ian Mortensen to save the inning.
Mortensen obliged by hammering a ball off the left field wall for an RBI double, giving the Cougars the go-ahead run.
Given how Beal was dealing, one run figured as if it may be the difference in the game.
But the Bullard offense did not go down without a fight, determined to score a run even if they didn’t get a hit to do it.
Cougars left-handed pitcher Seth Madruga took the mound in the sixth, and the roof seemed to collapse on Clovis.
With one out, Knights shortstop Brady Zavorek reached on an error by Cougars third baseman Brayden Nicholson, giving Bullard the opening it needed to wreak havoc on the basepaths.
Designated hitter Nico Rangel followed with a walk, and Madruga promptly threw two wild pitches, including one that advanced Zavorek to third base, and the other allowing him to score.
But the nightmare inning didn’t end there for Madruga. With Rangel on third base, Madruga fielded a comebacker, which he airmailed into center field while trying to throw out left fielder Colin Rios at second base. Rangel scored on the play and the Cougars suddenly were down a run with just six outs left to counter.
Clovis put together a rally in the bottom of the inning, partly as a result of two straight errors by Zavorek, but nothing would come of it and the Knights closed out the Cougars the rest of the way to spoil the home opener.
“It’s pretty tough to lose a game and not give up a hit,” Cougars coach Chris Patrick said. “I was really proud of the way our pitchers threw the ball, we just had a couple defensive lapses, a couple wild pitches at inopportune times, but that’s baseball.”
Clovis has a chance to get that bad taste out of its collective mouth on Thursday when Tulare Western comes to town in the second round of the annual competition. Patrick said that his team needs to put the tough loss behind them and get ready for the next one.
“You just have to have a real short memory,” he said. “In this game, you have to be mentally strong. If you let things get to you, you can have it spiral real fast.”