By Jeremy Balan
On a scorecard, Balboa High School senior Alex Arnold’s groundout to second base in the second inning of the Academic Athletic Association baseball semifinals looks routine, but it’s the kind of groundout that makes coaches gush.
It was also the difference in Balboa’s 1-0 upset win over Lowell on Thursday at Big Rec.
After a leadoff double by junior Jeremy Wong, one of only two Balboa hits in the game, Arnold hit a textbook ground ball to Lowell second baseman Nick Magyari, allowing Wong to get to third with one out.
The next batter, Branden Oropeza, hit a sacrifice fly to center field on a 3-2 pitch from Lowell starter Aaron Leong and Wong just beat the relay throw to the plate.
“We’ve been working on situational hitting a lot, because we knew this game would be a battle,” Arnold said. “Even if we make outs, we want them to be productive. That’s what we did and that’s why we got the win today.”
Arnold, also the starting pitcher for Balboa (16-8), didn’t know it then, but that run was all the Buccaneers would need to knock the Cardinals (23-6) out of the playoffs in the semifinal round for the fourth consecutive year.
The right-hander often fell behind Lowell batters, but only allowed four hits, three walks and struck out two in a complete-game shutout. Arnold stranded seven Lowell baserunners and the Bucs played flawless defense behind him.
“I was just throwing consistent fastballs down low,” Arnold said. “They were hitting it hard, but they were hitting it into the ground. My defense was really behind me today.”
Arnold got out of three separate jams with multiple runners on base and the final came in the sixth inning, when a one-out infield single from Lowell’s Jake Simons was followed by a a four-pitch walk from Andy Glickfeld.
Balboa coach Tom Pontino made an extended visit to the mound and Arnold responded, forcing two consecutive popouts on just two pitches to end the threat.
“He just said keep throwing strikes and give the defense a chance,” Arnold said of Pontino’s visit. “Luckily, they popped the ball up. Two pitches, two popups.”
As well as Arnold pitched, Leong may have actually had a better game, despite the lone run.
The junior right-hander allowed just four baserunnners, only allowed one runner past second base (the runner that scored) and also pitched a complete game on just 74 pitches.
“Aaron did a really good job on the mound today,” said Lowell head coach John Donohue. “He got out of trouble, picked a guy off, etc. It’s probably our offense’s fault that we didn’t deliver.”
The same Lowell lineup that averaged over 10 runs per game in thee AAA regular season was shut out for the first time in league play. The Cardinals hit several balls hard, but nearly all were mopped up by the Balboa defense.
“If we don’t put the ball in play sometimes we have a tough time scoring runs, but that wasn’t it today,” Donohue said.
The Bucs were swept by Lowell in two regular-season games, but the single-elimination win punches their ticket to the AAA championship game on Saturday at AT&T Park, where they will face Washington for the second consecutive year. The Eagles won last season’s championship game 4-1.
“Last year we were overwhelmed, being there the first time,” Pontino said. “Now I’m taking a group of kids who have been there, so hopefully things will be different.”
Washington 19, Marshall 0
Marshall’s feel-good Cinderella story got a dose of reality on Thursday at Big Rec.
The defending AAA champs scored 10 runs in the second inning, five in the third and four in the fourth to end the semifinal matchup via mercy rule.
Washington senior pitcher Dane Vande Guchte started and threw three scoreless innings and fellow senior Avery Velasco came on to throw two scoreless innings in relief.