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Merced on fire

Nick Bernardi is enjoying this.

Like most of his teammates, the Merced senior wasn't having much fun after an 0-4 Central California Conference start.

Three weeks later, Merced is just two wins away from making the playoffs.

That's because Friday night, Bernardi recorded a career-high 15 strikeouts as Merced edged Atwater 4-3 to win its sixth straight game.

The win sets the stage for a showdown next week with Golden Valley (7-3 CCC, 15-9).

Merced (6-4 CCC, 12-13) needs to beat its crosstown rival twice to wrap up the CCC's second playoff spot.

"All of a sudden our bats came alive," said Bernardi about Merced's season turnaround. "The hits have just been everywhere."

Merced had been plundering teams -- scoring 60 runs during its five-game winning streak.

However, Friday night it was Bernardi's left arm and Merced's ability to turn three Atwater errors into runs that kept its postseason hopes alive.

Thursday's Pitman and Turlock losses have given Merced control of its own destiny heading into the final week.

"It's a good position to be in," Merced coach Todd Buchner said. "This is the reason you play and why you coach.

"We know what we have to do."

Merced cruised early against Atwater.

Daniel Benson, Ty Pedretti and Phillip Robinson all had two hits apiece as Merced built an early 3-0 lead.

Meanwhile Bernardi was making quick work of Atwater -- striking out six in a row at one point.

The lead suddenly disappeared in the sixth as Lance Button's two-run single highlighted a three-run rally that tied the game at 3-3.

"I have to keep my focus up until the end," Bernardi said. "I lost my focus that inning. I have to make sure I stay mentally strong."

An Atwater error helped Merced answer back with a run in the bottom of the sixth to regain the lead at 4-3 and Bernardi struck out the side in the seventh.

Everything will be riding on the GV series that starts at Merced College on Tuesday night at 7 p.m.

Golden Valley can wrap up the final spot by winning one of the two games.

"What more can you ask for?" asked Bernardi. "Who else would you want to be playing for a playoff spot?"