STOCKTON — This is why Oklahoma State made Vince Wheeland one of its priorities during the recruiting season.
"Vince is pitcher, not a thrower," said Turlock coach Mark de la Motte, noting that Wheeland occasionally hits 90 mph with his fastball. "He has great location and every pitch that comes out of his hand appears the same to the batter."
Wheeland had parlayed his physical and mental talents into a 12-0 record in 12 starts, but the challenge awaiting on Tuesday was the greatest of his career.
He needed to silence the Sac-Joaquin Section's most potent Division I lineup or the Bulldogs' season would be over.
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While more dramatic than any of his earlier wins, Wheeland struck out nine and escaped numerous tight situations to lead Turlock past St. Mary's 7-3 in the regional playoffs. Since St. Mary's beat Turlock last week and was unbeaten, the 'Dogs had to win two games to reach the best-of-three championship series.
"Vince got us to the second game. He gave us everything we asked for," said de la Motte, after Wheeland's 135-pitch effort. "He had some mechanical issues, but he battled through them all."
Turlock freshman Nick Vounard was unable to duplicate Wheeland's performance in the nightcap, as the Rams won 18-4 for the regional title. Vounard had shocked Beyer 3-1 a week earlier in his varsity debut for the Bulldogs.
"My kids were so confident they were going to force a second game that they brought their road uniforms to change into," said de la Motte, pointing to the gleaming white jerseys between games.
Wheeland finishes 13-0 — no one in the state has more wins, and only one other pitcher in California can match his 13-0 record — with a 0.72 ERA. This one was one Wheeland will remember.
The Rams, who had won 16 in a row, put at least two runners on in six of the seven innings and stranded a season-high 13. They loaded the bases twice, but got just one run. It was in the sixth, though, that Wheeland was at his best.
Louie Lechich had tripled in two runs with one out, cutting Turlock's lead to 5-3, with cleanup hitter Kurt Smith coming to the plate. Wheeland struck him out with a wicked curve, and Smith was still arguing the call as he walked away.
Wheeland fooled the next hitter, too, getting a pop-up to right. First baseman James Heller, running with his back to the plate, reached out for a circus catch.
The Bulldogs appeared to lock up the win in the bottom of the sixth when junior Kevin Kramer lined a home run far over the right-field fence. Sophomore Ryan Cumberland — whose two-run single made it 5-1 in the fourth — later doubled in Ryan Flood for a 7-3 lead.
It was Kramer's third home run in five playoff games at the University of the Pacific.
"He was struggling early in the year, but he's worked his tail off," de la Motte said. "It was a big innings for us, getting back those two runs."
Particularly when two runners reached in the seventh.
Wheeland got the first out on a called third strike, then hit No. 9 hitter Monro Meyer on the elbow. Actually, Meyer had stuck his elbow out to hit the pitch, so Wheeland protested and convinced the umpire to change the ruling.
Meyer returned from first — had he stayed there, the potential tying run would have come to the plate — and rocketed a ball 400 feet up the left-center gap. It looked ready to fall in, but left fielder Ricky Fuentes raced in for the catch just before hitting the wall.
"I was shocked he got to it, but Ricky is quick, that's why he's out there," de la Motte said. "He read the ball off the bat and just took off. It's the only way he gets to that ball."
It was a remarkable turnaround for the Bulldogs, who got knocked around in a 12-2 loss to St. Mary's earlier in the double-elimination event.
Turlock starts only two seniors — though Wheeland is one of those — and that youth kept the Bulldogs resilient.
They scratched out an early run on a bases-loaded walk, then scored four in the fourth off Michael Hager (8-3) after the Rams tied the game at 1.
Nos. 7 and 8 hitters Heller and Jeremy McDonald singled and moved up on a bunt. Kramer, who doubled to the left-field corner in his previous at-bat, was intentionally walked. A bases-loaded walk and Wheeland's sacrifice fly made it 3-1, then Cumberland ripped a one-hopper to second. Mitchell Gai could only get a piece of his glove on the ball before it continued into center to score two runs.
"Ryan's a good 'bad ball' hitter, so you don't want to be making a mistake to him," de la Motte said. "We've got the ability to slug it out, and that is difficult to do against a team that has such pitching."
The Rams came into the game with a 2.56 ERA, despite playing the section's most difficult schedules. Hager allowed one earned run or less in his previous seven starts.
"We had a great run, winning the conference and getting to the final," de la Motte said. "We've got a lot of kids coming back, so we're looking forward to next season."