Garret Boothe has been fed a steady diet of curveballs this season.
So he wasn't surprised when he saw one with a 2-1 count in the third inning. Boothe's eyes grew as he saw the ball left over the plate, and he deposited the pitch over the left-field fence for a three-run homer.
It was all the offensive support Merced ace Mike Nelson would need as the Bears defeated Golden Valley 3-1 on Tuesday afternoon at Merced College to win a share of the Central California Conference championship.
"I was looking fastball, but in the back of my mind I was thinking he might throw a curveball," Boothe said. "They've thrown me a lot of curveballs. I made the adjustment."
Merced's win combined with Turlock's 4-3 win over Pitman means the Bears will enter the playoffs as the CCC's top seed because they won the season series with the Bulldogs 2-1.
The top seed gets a bye in the first round of the playoffs.
Nelson overpowered the Golden Valley hitters from the start.
He struck out the side in the first on his way to a 12-strikeout performance, giving up just three hits.
About the only thing Nelson did wrong was his failed attempt with teammate Andrew Jaurique to dump ice water on Merced coach Lou Souza after the win. Souza sidestepped the water just in time.
"Mike has been our guy all year," said Souza, whose team improved to 11-4 in the CCC and 16-11 overall. "This is the point of the year when your seniors should lead you.
"Mike did a great job on the mound. Garret came up with the big hit, and Phillip Parga did a great job blocking some of those curveballs in the dirt."
The Cougars' Tyler Arnsberg came on in the fourth inning and shut down the Bears offense for the next three innings, striking out five hitters.
Golden Valley scored its only run of the game in the fifth inning on an RBI groundout by David Vidauri.
Nelson retired the final seven hitters of the game to close out the game and the conference title.
"This feels great," Boothe said. "Especially coming back from last year and everything that happened. We came out and played for each other. We played our hearts out. This means a lot."