By Jeremy Balan
With third-seed Stuart Hall awaiting in the next round of the North Coast Section playoffs, International High School gambled in the first round against Hoopa Valley by not starting standout senior pitcher Clay Bloszies.
But when the game was on the line, the Jaguars went to their ace in the hole.
Up by a single run with the tying and go-ahead runs on base in the sixth, International head coach Anthony Thomas brought Bloszies into the game and the senior responded with a five-out save to seal the 6-5 victory on Wednesday at San Francisco State University.
“He’s our senior and he wants the ball, so I don’t tell him no,” Thomas said. “We didn’t want to do it, but we couldn’t take the chance. We talked to him in the fifth inning and told him he might need to close it out.”
Coming in cold after catching for the first 5 1/3 innings, Bloszies walked the first Hoopa Valley batter he faced on four pitches, but then got a lift from a familiar source.
The next batter hit a ground ball to senior shortstop Brian Benavides, who quickly tagged the runner going to third base, then slung a throw to first to complete the double play and prevent the tying run from scoring.
“That’s just kind of an instinctual play,” Benavides said. “I knew the situation, applied the tag and that’s just playing baseball.”
Benavides initiated three double plays on the day, but also committed two errors, one of which led to three unearned runs in the fifth inning.
“Sometimes he makes me nervous with some of the things that he does, but he’s got a great glove,” Thomas said. “No one felt worse when he made that error to let those runs come in, but he absolutely [vindicated himself] and he always does. This is not his first rodeo.”
In the ninth, Bloszies walked the leadoff batter, but the baserunner was eliminated on another double play started by Benavides. Bloszies then struck out Hoopa Valley’s Alex Hodge to seal the win.
“I wish we would have held onto that four-run lead longer than we had it, but a win is a win,” Bloszies said.
International took control of the game early by scoring four runs in the first inning, highlighted by back-to-back RBI doubles from Benavides and Bloszies, then added another on a sacrifice fly from Bloszies that scored Benavides in the second to give the Jaguars a 5-1 lead.
But it was a bit of small-ball that proved to be the difference. With a 5-2 lead in the fourth inning, International sophomore Griffin Wurzelbacher worked a walk, then stole second and advanced to third on a throwing error. With one out, fellow sophomore Devin Conroy got a bunt down and Wurzelbacher scored on the safety-squeeze play.
“We practice that play every day and we felt that we just needed to add on,” Thomas said. “Fortunately, we added enough.”
International needed to be creative, because after early struggles, Hoopa Valley starting pitcher Junior Davis locked the Jaguars down.
Davis didn’t allow a hit in the final four innings and retired 14 of the final 15 International batters of the game. Wurzelbacher, representing the winning run, was the lone exception.
“Junior Davis has the heart of a champion and he never quits,” said Hoopa Valley head coach Wes Crawford. “When he’s pitching, we’re in every game.”
International junior pitcher Jordan Malik put together a solid start, allowing just one earned run in five innings to collect the win, but was the victim of four errors that plated four unearned runs.
“Jordan battled like he always does,” Thomas said. “I want guys to realize that this team is more than just Clay and Brian. Guys have opportunities to step up and they need to.”
Bloszies will take the mound against Stuart Hall on Saturday, in somewhat of a de facto Bay Counties League championship game. Stuart Hall took the only regular-season meeting between the two teams, with a 2-1 non-league win in early March.
“Stuart Hall has gotten better and so have we, because it was so early in the season,” Thomas said. “They understand the symbolism of this game that goes beyond NCS. We’re talking about being one of the two or three best teams in the City now. That’s what we play the game for.”
I – Brian Benavides doubles, Devin Conroy scores
I – Clay Bloszies doubles, Benavides scores
I – Jacob Bogdanov singles, Bloszies scores
I – Griffin Wurzelbacher walks, Noah Morton scores
HV – Joseph Bain reaches on an error, Shane Nixon scores
I – Bloszies sacrifice fly, Benavides scores
HV – Nixon reaches on an error, Bradley Hostler scores
I – Conroy sacrifice bunt, Wurzelbacher scores
HV – Nixon reaches on an error, Hostler scores
HV – Alex Hodge singles, Junior Davis and Nixon score
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