TURLOCK — The expectation is there every time Vince Wheeland takes the mound, as fans turn out in expectation of another masterpiece.
The Oklahoma State-bound hurler might be the best baseball player in the Stanislaus District, and there's little debate that the senior is the top pitcher.
He showed it again Friday, recovering from a poor start to lead Turlock past Merced 12-2 — clinching the Bulldogs' first Central California Conference title since 2002.
"I challenged them and realized that I couldn't just throw up fastballs," said Wheeland, who gave up both runs in the top of the first. "I started mixing pitches, throwing sliders and changeups, then I'd come back inside with a fastball."
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Wheeland's ability to throw such a variety, and with such effectiveness, kept the Bears (11-14, 6-4) from getting comfortable the rest of the game. The 5-foot-10½ right-hander finished with 11 strikeouts.
"One of the things Oklahoma State liked was that I'm a pitcher, not just a thrower," said Wheeland, 9-0 with a 0.62 ERA. "The difference is I hit spots, throw different pitches and read batters and the way they swing. A thrower, he'll just wind up throw fastballs."
It was only the second time in nine starts he has given up more than one run — not one an earned run, but one run total — and it's the eighth time he had at least 11 strikeouts.
Merced's moment of euphoria turned to despair when Turlock (18-6, 8-2) scored seven in the bottom of the first.
Leadoff hitter Kevin Kramer, who recently moved from the No. 3 slot in hopes of shaking a hitting slump, was hit twice by a pitch and doubled.
He was hit by a pitch in his first at-bat, scoring Turlock's first run on a Ryan Cumberland single, then doubled later in the inning for a 7-0 lead.
"Kevin has given us power and speed at the top of the order," coach Mark de la Motte said. "He's seeing more pitches because of the kids behind him. You don't want to walk Kevin and then see Vince and Ryan with a runner on base."
Wheeland became the No. 3 hitter when Turlock juggled its lineup, while Cumberland stayed cleanup. Wheeland hit a game-winning grand slam to beat Merced 7-3 on Tuesday, and Cumberland's 37 RBIs top the Stanislaus District.
Turlock has scored 28 runs in its last three wins, and the win gives it the conference's top seed in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs.
The Bulldogs will open with the San Joaquin Athletic Association runner-up — Lodi or Lincoln (both 17-6 overall) — May 18 at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. Merced can get in by winning one of two vs. rival Golden Valley in next week's regular-season finale.
Turlock's win assures that the district's best two teams are on opposite sides of the bracket. Modesto Metro Conference champ Beyer has the CCC's No. 2 team on May 19.
If Turlock were the CCC's No. 2, it would have pitted the district's No. 2 team (Turlock) against No. 1 (Beyer) in a single-elimination opener.
"It feels great to get back in the playoffs," said Wheeland. "We've only got three seniors on the team, but our younger players, they play like they've been playing for a long time."