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Pride roll to semifinal series opening win over Rio Americano
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The Pride varsity baseball team celebrates their first victory the best of three semifinal series against Rio Americano on Monday (CANDY PADILLA/The Journal).

The #1 seed Pitman High Pride took the first step towards redemption on Tuesday when they faced off with #4 Rio Americano High Raiders (Sacramento) in the first game of the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division II semifinal series. After being eliminated by the Raiders in the quarterfinals last year, the Pride made a statement in the first of potentially three games this week.

After a sacrifice fly in the fourth inning put the Raiders ahead 1-0, the Pride offense exploded for 10 unanswered runs enroute to a 10-1 victory and a 1-0 series lead.

“We saw them in the bracket and knew this was a team we wanted,” said Pitman High starting pitcher Drew Walker. “I was really looking forward to this one.”

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Brandon Leon celebrates with Karson Valenti after putting additional points on the scoreboard for Pitman. The Pride won against Rio Americano in their first best of 3 games Monday afternoon (CANDY PADILLA/The Journal).

And so was everyone else. As Walker dominated on the mound tossing six innings of four-hit, one-run baseball, every single batter in the Pitman starting lineup reached base to make life on the mound difficult for opposing pitching – a true “team win” as described by head coach Andy Walker.

Just minutes after falling behind 1-0 in the top of the fourth, the Pride came alive. Facing Rio Americano starter Brady Wilson, singles by Aidan Garcia and Andrew Ballentine coupled with Marcus Perez getting hit by a pitch, Walker helped his own cause by working a bases loaded walk. The Pride grabbed the lead with an RBI single. Brandon Leon extended the lead after getting hit by a pitch of his own before Dominic Damante drove in two more runs off of a double to break things open to make it a 5-1 ballgame. Two passed balls extended the lead to 7-1. Wilson exited the game failing to record an out in the inning.

Against reliever Brady Zablah, the Pride kept on hitting. In the fifth inning, Alex Lopez blasted a home run to right field, and in the sixth inning, Damante came through again with another RBI double. The tenth run came in on an error.

For Damante, the career day was a long time coming. The senior admitted that he has struggled at the plate this year, batting .243 in 74 at-bats, but proved that hard work tends to pay off.

“I’ve been struggling in the box,” he said. “I’ve really been working and going hard at the plate, and I finally figured it out. I’m finally getting my head down and looking at the ball all the way through, and it felt so good. I’m not a home run hitter. I’m a line drive, base hit guy, and it’s worked out.”

The big lead was especially important for Walker, who found himself pitching with the bases loaded in the sixth inning. He explained that the Raiders began picking up his fastball in their third time through the order, but a mound meeting with Coach Walker helped him settle down and escape the inning without any damage.

“They just picked up my fastball better and started hitting it. After like five innings, they just picked it up better that third time through the order. We had a lead, and he (Coach Walker) just let me know that I needed throw strikes, especially with the big lead, and I did and we go outs. That’s what we needed.”

Walker has now won nine games on the year with an ERA of 0.52 and 88 strikeouts.

“I’ve seen him work extremely hard… Being that I live with him, I saw the countless hours that he put into his game. He works in silence when no one’s there,” said Coach Walker, who is also Drew’s father. “He went from giving up 10 runs in six innings to he hasn’t even given up 10 runs all year this year.”

The Pride and Raiders will meet again on Wednesday at Rio Americano High School in Sacramento. First pitch is scheduled for 4 p.m. If the Pride wins, they will advance to the Section championship game. If the Raiders win, the series will transition back to Pitman High on Thursday at 4 p.m. for a winner-take-all third game.

“We’ll enjoy it tonight, but we need to regain focus when we walk onto the field for practice, and just treat it like any other game,” Damante said. “Just go to work like we’ve done all year.”