Braiden Ward and Mark Sellers have some magic brewing atop the El Capitan baseball lineup.
The Gauchos’ table setters have consistently reached base this season but have taken things to another level in the postseason.
The pair reached base seven times, setting the tone in El Capitan’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoff-opening victory over Placer on Wednesday. The duo was better Saturday.
Ward and Sellers combined to reach base seven times in the first five innings of the Gauchos’ 11-4 victory over Bear River at Tony Zupo Field. The duo scored five runs and drove in four as El Capitan took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three semifinal series.
Coach Aaron Ruiz’s squad will go for the sweep and a trip to the section title game Tuesday. Game 2 is set for 4 p.m., with a third game to follow if necessary.
If Bear River can’t find a way to slow Ward and Sellers, the third game shouldn’t be an issue.
“Guys at the top of the order getting on like that is huge for any team, but especially one like us that needs to manufacture runs,” Ruiz said. “The two of them have been amazing the last two games, just constantly putting pressure on the other team.
“You get your leadoff guys on and there’s so many things you can do, and it really sets you up to score a lot of runs.”
The Gauchos (21-7) have certainly done that in the first two playoff games in program history, totaling 18 runs. It was a team effort Saturday with every starter reaching base at least once and seven players reaching at least twice.
A Matt Lopez (2 for 4, two RBIs) single put Bear River (18-10-1) in front in the top of the first inning, but the Gauchos answered with five runs in the bottom half.
Sai Davuluri produced the first three runs, doubling in two and then scoring on a wild pitch. Rafael Mercado pushed across a fourth run when he was plunked with the bases loaded, and Ward followed with a run-scoring single to make it 5-1.
That was all the run support junior right-hander Chase Whitaker needed. He answered the run in the first with three straight scoreless innings. Whitaker allowed four runs on six hits and three walks in 5 1/3 innings to earn his first postseason win.
“I was pretty thrilled to get the start today,” Whitaker said. “I wasn’t sure it was going to happen, so I just tried to make the most of it. Around the second or third inning, I felt like I found a rhythm. The ball seemed to be zipping out of my hand pretty good, and my off-speed stuff was working.
“With the way our offense was playing, I knew I just needed to throw strikes and let my defense play behind me.”
The few times the Bruins managed to score, El Capitan had an immediate answer.
Bear River scored twice in the fifth , trimming its deficit to 6-3. The Gauchos responded twofold in the bottom half, breaking open the game with four two-out runs.
Ward (2 for 4, three RBIs) hit a ball into the right-center gap. Elijah Reid scored easily and Ward ran through a stop sign at third, beating a wide relay throw home for an inside-the-park home run. El Capitan didn’t stop as Tyler Skelton singled in Sellers and Davuluri (2 for 4, two RBIs) followed him home when the left fielder misplayed the ball.
“I think we all had in the back of our minds that they’d already overcome a big (deficit) against Los Banos,” Sellers said of Bear River’s 8-7 win in eight innings over the Tigers on Wednesday, when the Bruins erased a 7-0 deficit with a seven-run fifth. “Every time they got a run or two, we did a good job of answering right back and not allowing them to get any momentum.”
Skelton came on to record the last five outs and put El Capitan one win from the title game.