MOUNTAIN VIEW — It was a pitchers’ duel for the ages in the storied baseball rivalry between Serra and St. Francis.
Padres right-hander Matt Blais locked up with Lancers lefty John Gavin for an absolute gem of a baseball game, as St. Francis (1-1 WCAL, 6-1 overall) persevered in extra innings for a 1-0 walk-off win.
Lancers pinch hitter Erik Benedetti drew a bases-loaded walk in the eighth inning to end it against Blais, who notched the complete game despite taking the hard-luck loss for Serra (0-2, 5-4).
“It was a great high school baseball game,” Serra manager Craig Gianinno said. “It was maybe the best pitching performance I’ve ever observed from a high-school arm in Matt Blais. He’s as good as it gets.”
Blais — who made just one start last season after serving as Serra’s closer for most of the year — allowed just two hits over eight innings and took a no-hitter into the fifth. Even after surrendering a one-out single to St. Francis senior Blake Billinger, Blais faced the minimum through seven innings by virtue of an inning-ending double play in the second (following a leadoff walk) and a pickoff of Brandon Engel, who pinch ran for Billinger in the fifth.
It wasn’t until the eighth inning that Blais ran into trouble, walking the leadoff hitter Tim Susnara, then surrendering a double to Billinger. After an intentional walk to Tyler Deason to load the bases, Benedetti ran the count to 3-1 before taking the decisive pitch that wasn’t close to the plate.
“[Taking Blais out of the game] didn’t even cross my mind, actually,” Gianinno said.
Blais allowed one run on two hits over eight innings of work, while striking out five against four walks — three of which came in the final inning. The senior threw 91 pitches, including 77 pitches through the regulation seven innings. The righty was smooth and stoic in pounding the zone with a mid-80s fastball while changing speeds effectively and flashing a crisp breaking ball to keep batters honest.
“Sometimes if I get hyped up it can throw me off my game,” Blais said. “So I just entered it like any other normal game. (I) used my strengths, which is mixing my pitches with my ability.”
But his opponent, Gavin, provided the perfect counterbalance to Blais’ demeanor. Gavin was as animated as he was dynamic. The fiery left-hander certainly had the look down pat, from the bright green shoelaces to offset the Lancers’ signature brown and gold uniform, while wearing his stirrups at dramatically mismatched lengths to create the stigma of a quirky southpaw. But the fireballer is anything but quirky as evidenced by the array of pro scouts on hand to keep tabs on his low-90s heat.
Gavin dealt through six innings to take a no decision, allowing no runs on three hits while striking out 10 against two walks. He also gets two nominations for fist-pump of the year, one after a pickoff at second base of James Outman to end one of the Padres’ biggest threats in the fifth. The second came after a double play on a comebacker off the bat of Nolan Dempsey in the sixth.
“He did a very good job,” Blais said of Gavin. “He was able to locate his stuff. Obviously we weren’t able to mount that much against him. So, he did a good job … and kept us off the bases, which was the killer.”
Blais and Gavin were actually teammates last summer on the scout team for the San Francisco Giants that played out of Stockton. Susnara, the Lancers’ standout catcher who has played for the Giants’ scout team for the past three years, caught both of them throughout the 2013 summer season.
“Caps off to Matt Blais,” Susnara said. “He’s a hard worker. I know how much he wanted this game. It could have gone either way, really — [0-0] going into the eighth. I mean, it was a great game.”
Lancers lefty Andrew Carter earned the win with two innings of relief to improve his record to 2-0.
Serra had three chances to generate small-ball offense but failed to execute in each situation. Ian McGuire bunted two pitches foul following a leadoff walk to Daniel Molinari in the third. McGuire went on to strike out and Molinari was ultimately stranded at first. In the sixth, Christopher Papapietro singled to start the frame but Dempsey failed to get a bunt down and went on to ground into a double play. Neil Sterling led off the eighth with a double, but Sean Watkins — in his first game of the season after returning from Serra basketball’s Nor Cal playoff berth — also came up empty after getting the bunt sign.
“It’s tough that someone has got to lose in that situation from an outcome perspective,” Gianinno said. “[Blais] certainly pitched well enough to win. As a group we had chances. We had moments. We just didn’t execute when we had those chances. It’s an unforgiving game. But I’m proud of him and our team. And, you know, we’re a good baseball team. We’ve just got to bounce back and keep chipping away at it.”