STOCKTON — When Kevin Kramer sent the first pitch of the game deep over the left-field, his teammates emerged from the dugout with smiles.
When the next two batters singled, there was no reason for Kramer and the Bulldogs to think they weren't on their way to the Sac-Joaquin Section winners' bracket final.
Then the reality of playing one of the section's elite baseball programs hit — and that quickly, Turlock was reeling.
In a matter of minutes, Turlock was trailing by three and on its way to a 12-2 loss to St. Mary's. The Rams, defending South Sub-Section champions, are favored to win again.
All the things that had gone right for Turlock (21-7) in its first-round rout of Lodi, not a one went right versus St. Mary's.
"The pressure got to us after a few things went wrong, but that can happen with just three seniors on our roster," Turlock coach Mark de la Motte said. "St. Mary's puts a lot of pressure on you, taking advantage of your mistakes."
That's the Rams' gameplan.
"There's not a weak spot in our lineup, so that puts a lot of pressure on pitchers," said winning pitcher Kurt Smith, who bats cleanup and went 3-for-3 with three RBIs. "We work every day hitting to the opposite field, so we take advantage of the whole plate."
The game turned on two poor at-bats, a misplayed fly ball and two botched pickoffs:
With runners on first and second and no out in the first, cleanup hitter Ryan Cumberland grounded out as he tried to pull an outside pitch. Two quick outs followed and Turlock lost its emotional spark.
"He's going to be anxious to hit, so I kept it outside and he wanted to pull it," said Smith, who scattered nine hits. "We work on situations like that every day during practice."
In the bottom of the first, with two on and two out, left fielder Tommy Evans took a step in to catch a liner — then watched it sail to the fence to help St. Mary's to a 4-1 lead.
Turlock trailed 4-1 when it put two on with no out in the third, but No. 3 hitter Vince Wheeland got jammed and his bouncer to the mound initiated a 1-5-3 double play.
"I came in tight with a fastball and my first thought was to get the lead runner," said Smith, whose fastball peaked at 89 miles per hour. "Turning the double play seemed to take something out of them."
Two pickoff throws sailed down the right-field line, leading to three more Rams' runs.
Turlock starter Jeremy McDonald allowed six runs in three innings, then the Rams scored four in the fourth off David Herrera for a 10-1 lead. A based-loaded walk forced in a run in the sixth, bringing about the 10-run mercy rule.
The top of the order hit the ball, Kramer and Ryan Flood were a perfect 6-for-6, but the rest of the lineup was 3-for-19 during the six-inning game.
"We're not done yet," de la Motte said. "This is the first bad game we've had since losing to Downey (11-0 in March) and we bounced back from that one. I told the boys we'll bounce back again Monday."
Turlock's season isn't over, but it will need to win four in a row next week to win the sub-section title and go to the best-of-3 title series against the Sacramento-area champ.
Turlock will have ace Vince Wheeland (11-0), tied for second in the state in wins, when it faces Lincoln (21-7) Monday at 4.