For a team that was perfect during the WPIAL baseball regular season, California was anything but flawless Monday.
Luckily for the Trojans, Sewickley Academy’s three pitchers combined for seven wild pitches and its defense committed four errors as California advanced to the WPIAL Class A Championship game with a six-inning 16-5 semifinal win at Washington & Jefferson’s Ross Memorial Park.
With the victory, the Trojans (19-0) will get a third meeting with section rival Carmichaels, a winner over Riverview Monday night, in the WPIAL May 27 or 28 at Consol Energy Park.
“I’ve never seen so many wild pitches like I did today,” California head coach Nick Damico said. “There were momentum swings with them grabbing it during the middle innings, and we got it back later. That was a crazy game, but we were able to seal the deal.”
California did not waste any time showing why it entered the playoffs as the top seed. Senior catcher Jake Columbus led off the game with a single and scored after stealing second when sophomore shortstop Louden Conte hit an RBI single.
Columbus, usually the Trojans’ No. 5 hitter, was switched to the lead-off spot on a hunch by Damico. It paid off as the senior went 5-for-5.
“Jake came through big for us today,” Damico said. “He was dominant behind the plate. There aren’t many guys who can shut it down back there like he does. He came to play today.”
Senior third baseman Ronnie Baron and senior pitcher Josh Luko added RBI singles to give California a 3-0 lead before back-to-back strikeouts ended the inning.
Sewickley Academy (9-6) scored one run in the first inning before starting pitcher Mark Duerr lost command of his fastball in the second.
Duerr threw three wild pitches and walked four batters in the inning, and the Panthers committed two errors. California sophomore left fielder Casey Zajicek capped the second inning with a two-run single as the Trojans scored seven runs on four hits. Zajicek scored on a dropped fly ball and Columbus followed with a RBI single as California took a 10-1 lead in the second.
“Their pitcher was usually throwing fastball, fastball and then a curveball,” Columbus said. “We started to see what was coming. I kept my weight back and waited on some stuff, but it wasn’t just me hitting today. All of us hit great today. It was a team win.”
The Trojans added a run in the third when Luko grounded into a fielder’s choice to score Aaron Previsky, who led off the inning with a triple. Trailing 11-1 heading to the bottom of the third, Sewickley scored one run on an error and two on back-to-back wild pitches by Cal to cut the deficit to seven.
The Trojans and Panthers traded runs in the fourth inning to make the score 12-4, but California put the game out of reach in the sixth when Columbus, who finished with two runs and two RBI, hit a RBI double and scored on a RBI single from Previsky.
“Our goal is to have all three facets of our game coming together at once,” Damico said. “We definitely hit well today. Our defense did not look sharp and neither did our pitching, but we got the job done.”
Baron, who went 2-for-3 with two walks and two runs, added a two-run double to put the mercy rule back in play. The Trojans’ third pitcher of the game, freshman Nathan Luketich, closed out the win in the sixth.
Despite committing three errors and a few base running mistakes, California advances to its second title game in three years.
“I’ve been working for this moment since I was a freshman,” Columbus said. “This is the best feeling ever. It’s amazing to be back in the championship game.”