Like a wide receiver making a grab along the sideline, Jesus Duran found the chalk that marked out of play along the third-base line of Blue Devil Field and dug in his toes.
With his Merced College teammates quickly dispersing to give him space, the third baseman leaned as far as he could and snagged the 27th out while keeping his feet in the field of play.
Before the umpire had a chance to make the out call, the Blue Devil bench exploded out of the dugout to celebrate MC’s first Central Valley Conference title since 2011. A raucous celebration ensued, complete with traditional dog pile as the Blue Devils beat Reedley 6-0 to wrap up the program’s third conference title in nine years with four regular-season games to play.
“We were so excited. As a team we were just chomping at the bit to play this one tonight,” first baseman Ryan Frakes said. “We wanted to do it here. I wouldn’t have wanted to do it anywhere else, but at home in front of our fans. It’s a great feeling and now we can start getting ourselves ready for the playoffs.”
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In a season in which the Blue Devils (24-12, 15-2 CVC) ran away with the league crown despite four CVC teams ranked in the NorCal top 13 and five teams boasting winning records, Thursday was an emphatic exclamation point.
Merced College excelled in all three phases of the game, led by Nicholas Gonzales’ four-hit shutout. It was the first complete game of the sophomore right-hander’s career as he allowed just seven base runners and struck out seven in a 102-pitch gem.
“I was a little nervous knowing what was at stake tonight and a little anxious to get back out there after getting hit around in my last start,” said Gonzales, who improved to 6-3 on the year. “I was a little wild to start the game because of it, but as I soon as I settled down I had good command of all my pitches.
“My changeup was particularly good tonight. I love that pitch and I was on with it.”
He got plenty of offensive support as MC put base runners on in six of their eight at-bats, pushing across six runs on 12 hits.
The Blue Devils opened the scoring in the bottom of the third inning as Asuka Hashimoto (2 for 4) came home on a throwing error. Frakes then doubled in a run to make it 2-0.
Merced doubled its lead one inning later when Lawrence Anderson singled in a pair of runs. The Blue Devils would tack on runs with a Derek Molina (3 for 4 ) solo home run in the seventh and a Duran RBI double in the eighth.
Reedley (22-14, 9-8 CVC) never threatened to get back into it.
The Tigers only got a runners in scoring position twice in the game, both times starting the rally with two outs. Gonzales answered each mini jam with a strikeout, shutting down any momentum before it could get going.
“Gonzales is a strike thrower, and when he attacks the zone like that, he can be really good,” MC coach Chris Pedretti said. “His two-seam fastball got in on guys tonight and really set up his other pitches. I didn’t feel like we were great offensively, but then I look up and we have 12 hits, so clearly we did OK there.
“It’s pretty amazing. They’ve done a great job of taking it one game at a time and not getting caught up in the standings. You take two of three from Fresno, sweep COS and then take two from these guys, that’s a good year.”