This Central Section Division I baseball semifinal figured to be mostly about Bullard’s Jacob Pizzo and Buchanan’s Grant Gambrell, who arrived on the Bears’ field Tuesday afternoon with video game-type statistics, notably a combined 22-1 pitching record.
And while they certainly had impacts – even in other areas, like Pizzo’s no-doubt two-run homer off Gambrell in the first inning – this one would magnify the depth and general all-around excellence of Buchanan, which is 29-1 and top-ranked nationally for many reasons.
Junior shortstop Jamal O’Guinn reversed the momentum with a three-run homer off Pizzo in the second inning, and senior second baseman J.T. Arruda made repeated college-caliber defensive plays as the top-seeded Bears defeated No. 4 Bullard 5-3.
They’ll attempt to repeat as Division I champions next Tuesday at Visalia’s Rawhide Ballpark at 8 p.m., playing No. 2 Clovis North, which defeated No. 3 Clovis 5-4 at Clovis North.
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Buchanan, winner of five of the past 11 D-I championships under coach Tom Donald, is top-ranked nationally by USA Today’s computer poll and No. 2 by CBS MaxPreps five years after finishing 30-2 and No. 1 nationally by ESPN RISE.
But the Bears received an immediate jolt when Pizzo launched the home run to deep left – the first in 59 1/3 innings off Oregon State-bound Gambrell, who came in 10-0 with an 0.59 ERA – and only the second in 194 1/3 innings off Buchanan pitching overall.
“This was a tough way to end your season when you dreamed about ending theirs,” said Pizzo, who will go to the University of San Francisco with a four-year total of 28 wins on his résumé. “But we laid it out there for seven innings and gave them a fight; that’s all you can ask for.”
It ended fittingly, with Arruda chasing down a Pizzo popup on the right-field line as Quentin Selma earned the save with two hitless innings.
One of four Bears committed to Fresno State, Arruda finished with five assists and two putouts.
“Big-time plays by a big-time player,” said coach Chad Thornhill of County/Metro Athletic Conference champion Bullard (21-9). “Those are game changers.”
For all of Arruda’s brilliance, the game changer was O’Guinn’s one-out homer on a first-pitch changeup by Pizzo (12-2) in the second. It also scored Cory Williams, who had singled on an 0-2 pitch, and Chase Rocamora in an inning that began with Pizzo hitting Alex Peralta.
And the irony of the home run to left by O’Guinn, who has also committed to Fresno State: It was his first homer of the season and first since he hit one virtually to the exact spot on April 1 last year, only for Sanger in a 9-2 loss to Buchanan.
O’Guinn said he moved into the Bears’ attendance area last fall with this father.
“This is the best coaching staff in the nation,” he said. “I learn something every day.”
He identified the Pizzo changeup quickly: “I saw it right out of his hand and put an ‘A’ swing on it. Once I rounded first, I looked and thought, ‘I got one, finally.’ ”
Clovis North 5, Clovis 4 – Mitch Casillas hit a three-run double in the first inning, James Bell (single) and Noah Haupt (sacrifice fly) drove in what proved to be the decisive runs in the fifth, and Brett Walker pitched the final three innings as the second-seeded Broncos (24-6-1) escaped at home against the No. 3 Cougars (23-9).
Mason Grotto (double) and Connor Jorgensen (single) drove in runs as Clovis hacked the deficit to 5-4 in the seventh before Walker closed it out.
Clovis, last year’s D-I runner-up after winning it in 2014, was making its 11th straight semifinal appearance.
“I told our guys it would be this way,” Clovis North coach Chris Patrick said of the seventh-inning escape against a Cougars team coached by his father, James Patrick. “We always have great battles against those guys.”