No one stands in the way of Eric Karch now, not J.D. Salles, not Sean Silva and, apparently, not even the Central Section's top-ranked team -- Buchanan High.
"There's no question he's our No. 1 guy, and we rally around him," Clovis West High coach Kevin Patrick said after Karch pitched a four-hitter, struck out 11 and drove in the decisive runs with a lost-in-the-lights double Tuesday night as the No. 2 Golden Eagles beat the Bears 3-1 in what promises to be the first of three Tri-River Athletic Conference showdowns.
Only in an elite program such as Clovis West can a player of Karch's caliber be relegated to a supportive role as a junior pitcher.
Last year, he's an ace in 95% of the programs in the Central Section.
But, with the Eagles, he pitched merely 17 innings for a 28-6 team that placed second in Division I behind Salles and Silva.
"There just wasn't enough innings to go around, but we knew we had an ace coming back," Patrick said.
Salles and Silva are now at Fresno State and UNLV, so it's Karch's time. And oh how it was as he shackled a 10-1, state 11th-ranked team on its home field.
"No shocker, everyday thing," Clovis West catcher Michael Gilleland said after hardly moving his glove in a 102-pitch performance that didn't yield an earned run.
And it ended in style -- a 1-2 high fastball blown past Bee All-Star Seth Moranda -- as the state's eighth-ranked Eagles improved to 11-1 and 2-0 in the TRAC.
"Yeah, that was nice," said Karch (4-0), who has signed with Pepperdine. "I was just going with the flow. Any time you beat Buchanan, it's pretty sweet. It's our time, not just me; it's everyone."
Moranda (3-1), in losing for only the third time against 13 wins in two years, matched the four-hitter.
But the junior got burned by the elements -- visors that fit atop the stadium lights, a feature used by Clovis Unified to prevent beams from bleeding into adjacent neighborhoods.
What can happen -- and what did happen -- are flyballs that carry higher than light level and effectively into the dark.
That came into play with two outs and two runners on in the top of the fifth, when Karch lifted what appeared to be a routine flyball slightly toward right-center. But Bears center fielder Jake East lost the ball and it plopped untouched.
That broke a 1-1 tie, scoring Jacob Alvarez, who had reached on an error, and James Bitter, who was hit by a pitch.
"I saw it go into the air, but I lost it, too," Karch said. "I said, 'Well, run it out hard and see what happens,' and it dropped. It goes in the books as a double, so I can't complain."
Tom Donald can.
"There's so much baseball to play," the Buchanan coach said. "Nobody in the TRAC is going to go 15-0; it's highly unlikely. But it's just a hard pill to swallow because of the way we lost."