By Ray Hamill — The Panthers are showing no signs of slowing down, and if anything appear to be growing stronger.
On Wednesday afternoon, McKinleyville won a seventh straight game, shutting out St. Bernard’s 3-0 at Mack High with a solid all-around performance, and improving to 17-1 on the season.
It was the Panthers’ fourth shutout in that winning streak, with three pitchers combining, and sets them up nicely for next week’s crucial Big 5 series with Eureka.
“We’ve been in a lot of close games over the past few years and we’re finding out how to win those games now,” McKinleyville head coach Scott St. John said. “The guys are buying in and it’s showing. We’re real pleased with this one.”
And so they should be.
The Panthers went with a platoon of pitchers, with Kyler Carr getting the win in relief of Lance Lally, and Cameron Saso coming in for the save.
Pitching has not been a problem for the Panthers all season, but it wasn’t even the most impressive part of Wednesday’s performance.
At the plate, the McKinleyville bats exploded for nine hits against St. Bernard’s starter Caleb Ruiz who has dominated opponents all season and rarely gives up more than a hit or two in a single game.
The Panthers got the scoring breakthrough in the bottom of the fourth with back-to-back base hits to lead off.
Dustin Ireland hit a double, before scoring moments later on a Regan Wolfe single to center field for a 1-0 lead.
The Panthers made it 3-0 an inning later with RBI singles by Ireland and Carr scoring Saso and Corbin Eichin, who had singled and walked to get on base, respectively.
“McKinleyville is (17-1) and on top of the Big 5 conference for a reason,” St. Bernard’s head coach Matt Tomlin said. “They’re well coached, they’ve got good players, and they’re playing really well as a team right now.”
The Crusaders, who dropped to 14-8, were missing four players, including freshmen Nick Dugan and Braedan Zimmerman, who each have maxed out the number of games they’re eligible for between JV and varsity.
Both, however, will be back for the playoffs.
“As far as our kids, I’m proud of them today,” Tomlin said. “We did some things. We just had to put a lot of young guys out there. We were missing four starters, so for the guys we put out there, I thought we competed.”
It was certainly a close game, with the Panthers getting the right hits when they needed them and out-hitting the visitors 10-5.
“It was a great game,” St. John said. “Hat’s off to St. Bernard’s. They came out hard. Ruiz is a great pitcher. He throws hard, he’s got a good breaking ball, and he throws with velocity. That was good for our guys and I thought we did well.”
Saso, Eichin and Ireland all had two hits in the win, while Lally and Chase Fisher had a hit each.
Bode Joyner, who pitched the final inning in relief of Ruiz, had two hits offensively, with Ruiz, Hunter Davis and Taholo Vainuku-Johnson each finishing with one.
Lally continued his impressive season and gave up just one hit in the opening three innings while striking out four, before Carr came in to toss two innings, allowing three hits and striking out two.
Saso pitched the final two innings, giving up one hit and retiring the Crusaders in order in the seventh to seal the win.
Both teams will be off for the next week.
The Panthers host Eureka in their regular season home finale next Wednesday to open what will be a league deciding series.
The Loggers are currently 6-0 in the Big 5, while the Panthers are 8-1, but Eureka must first play a tricky three-game series against Arcata, which is 7-2.
St. Bernard’s will look to clinch a Little 4 championship in a doubleheader at Hoopa on May 2.