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Smallball key as Pitman beats Rodriguez to advance to semifinals
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The Pride of Pitman High were once again jumping with joy after breaking from their postgame huddle, a hard-earned celebration after coming back from an early deficit to beat Rodriguez High 9-5 on Thursday (CANDY PADILLA/The Journal).

While the game of baseball has seen a shift toward analytics such as launch angle, exit velocity and slugging in recent years, the Pride of Pitman High reminded fans on Thursday that situational hitting remains as effective as ever. In the Pride’s CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division II quarterfinal matchup against the Mustangs of Rodriguez High (Fairfield), bunts and aggressive baserunning were driving forces in a 9-5 victory.

The #1 seed Pride, who came into Thursday’s game with a 19-6-1 overall record and 13-1 Central California Athletic League record, tabbed Fresno State-bound Andrew Balentine to take the home mound on Thursday against the #9 seed Mustangs, who achieved a 16-10 overall record and an 11-4 record in the Monticello Empire League. Though the matchup seemed favorable for Pitman, self-described jitters and a lack of command from the lefty put the Pride in an early 4-0 deficit after the first two innings. In those two frames, Balentine gave up four hits, two walks and two wild pitches.

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After a shaky first two innings where he allowed four runs, Pitman High ace Andrew Balentine settled down, finishing with 6 2/3 frames under his belt and the win in the Pride’s 9-5 victory over Rodriguez High (CANDY PADILLA/The Journal).

“I was trying to overpower them,” the senior pitcher said. “It was a big moment, the adrenaline was going, and I was just trying to throw as hard as I can, but when I realized that I couldn’t locate trying to overpower them, I just realized I needed to let my defense work and then we can hit and get some runs.”

And that’s exactly what he did. After mound visits from catcher Marcus Perez and head coach Andy Walker, Balentine was able to better command his four-seam fastball, curveball and changeup, retiring the sides in the third and fourth innings before the Pride offense came to life.

Perez led off the bottom half of the fourth with a 10-pitch walk against Rodriguez starter Grant Genter, who was visibly frustrated after allowing Perez to reach. When facing the next batter, Drew Walker, Genter balked to put Perez in scoring position. Two pitches later, Walker lined a ball to the second baseman, who misplayed the hop and allowed Perez to score. After surrendering another walk to Alex Lopez, a bunt by Dominic Damante turned the inning chaotic. Genter fielded Damante’s bunt cleanly, but overthrew the first baseman, allowing two more runs to score. An RBI single by Brandon Leon in the very next at-bat tied the game at 4-4.

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Pitman High senior Brandon Leon rounds third to score on an RBI single by Karson Valenti in the fifth inning of Thursday’s 9-5 win over Rodriguez High (CANDY PADILLA/The Journal).

Coach Walker gave praise to Perez for the way he battled to lead off the big inning and set the tone for those behind him.

“That was just the epitome of a phenomenal two-strike at-bat,” Walker said. “For a pitcher, that’s just demoralizing. It’s mentally and physically draining that you just threw ten pitches and now that guy is on base. It’s draining for the fielder, the pitcher, everybody involved, and you saw the effects of it right there. There’s frustration and that usually leads to mistakes, and our guys capitalized on it.”

The Pride claimed the lead in the fifth inning when Walker singled in Balentine, who reached earlier in the inning with a walk. The game was broken open two batters later when a flyball by Leon to deep right field was dropped, allowing the bases to clear and making it 8-5. Karson Valenti capped off the inning with an RBI single.

“At this level of the game, it’s win-or-go-home, and we’ve told the kids throughout this entire stretch that we need to do whatever it takes to try to push runs across the board,” Coach Walker said. “They know that they need to put together what we call ‘team at-bats.’ It doesn’t matter if you’re the leadoff guy, the nine-hitter or anywhere in between, we need team at-bats in order to win these types of games, and we had a bunch of them.”

As for Balentine, he earned the win after tossing 6 2/3 innings, striking out four and giving up four earned runs off of nine hits and two walks.

“Hey, some days you don’t have your best stuff. I was getting a bit frustrated with how the way things were going, but nobody is going to feel sorry for you. I just felt like I needed to trust my defense and not try to strike everyone out and give our offense a chance, and that’s what happened,” Balentine said. “Our offense is electric and can run up the score at any moment, so I’m glad I was able to settle down and give them the chance to do what they do.”

Next up for the top-seeded Pride is the semifinal round, which is a best-of-three series. And they’ll be facing a familiar foe in the Rio Americano Raiders (Sacramento). Last season, just over a year to the date, the Raiders eliminated the Pride in the quarterfinal round by a score of 7-1.

I’m stoked and just excited for the opportunity,” Balentine said. “We’re ready. I trust our three starters (himself, Walker, Leon) in a three-game series over anyone.”

The semifinal series against Rio Americano will begin on Monday at the Pitman High ballfield with first-pitch scheduled for 4 p.m.