ELK GROVE — Nobody was gonna beat Ben Eckels on Wednesday. Nobody.
The brilliant junior threw a four-hit complete game — striking out 16 — in guiding Davis High to a 3-1 win over home-standing Franklin.
The victory gives the Blue Devils (21-4-1, 12-3) sole possession of second place in the Delta Valley Conference, thus avoiding a Monday Sac-Joaquin Section tournament play-in game. Instead, the Wildcats (18-9-1, 10-5) have to earn their way into next week’s eight-team north field.
“The win was huge,” said DHS skipper Dan Ariola. “It’s been nice winning the last three. We needed to avoid that play-in game. It’s nice knowing we’re jumping right into that first round.”
Pitching with an angel on each shoulder, Eckels (6-3) allowed only three balls to be hit out of the infield. He walked but one batter and coughed up an unearned run in the sixth.
Eckels, who has always been inspired by his late uncle Bobby Jones (an ex-Blue Devil who died of cancer during his senior year in 1993), has dedicated his efforts this spring to Scott Heinig — the popular DHS and UC Davis star and recent Devil pitching coach who died last month in an accidental fall.
Eckels says Heinig and Jones are “always there,” but it’s difficult to talk further about Heinig — someone to whom Eckels grew very close since last summer.
“I was thinking about him, but …”
Spent from the emotion of the big win, Eckels changed the subject.
“My change-up was the strikeout pitch (Wednesday),” the crafty right-hander explained. “My fastball and slider helped … I didn’t throw any curves.”
Coming in, Ariola liked his team’s chances with his ace on the hill. But Franklin junior Josh Pigg presented an unexpected hurdle toeing the rubber against Eckels.
Pigg (4-2 with a 2.18 ERA) fanned the first five Blue Devils he faced.
It wasn’t until the third inning that DHS broke through — barely.
Bobby Young smacked a one-out bleeder to right. After Young stole second, Josh Merritt fouled off three, two-strike pitches before working a walk, setting the stage for lead-off hitter George Hatamiya’s RBI bouncer up the middle.
“He’s been unbelievable,” Ariola said of his catcher. “He’s been so valuable for us: 29 walks, that big hit to get us started. George has meant everything to us this year. And being back there and to have performed like he has … it’s been great.”
Hatamiya went 1-for-3 Wednesday and is hitting .367.
After the Young run, Pigg settled in again and got Josh Cosio and Chris Gnos to avoid further damage. Meanwhile, Eckels looked like Cy Young.
Through four innings he had a two-hitter, nine whiffs and made a team hitting .342 look bad at the plate.
When Franklin played hot potato with the baseball in the top of the fifth, DHS scored two unearned runs.
Ryan Plumb opened with a solid single to left-center. Young drew a walk, setting up Merritt’s perfect sacrifice bunt. But when Pigg threw wildly to first, Plumb scored, Young was at third and Merritt stood at first.
After Hatamiya struck out, Cosio hit a shallow fly to center. Ariola sent Young, who was safe when Jon Zunich’s throw home flew past the catcher.
An error and singles by Pigg and Diego Rodriguez resulted in the ‘Cats unearned run an inning later.
Next, the Devils play Pleasant Grove on the road Friday to end the regular season. Jack Shelledy (5-0, 1.97 ERA) will get the nonleague start for DHS, according to Ariola.
In the first round of the playoffs on May 20, Davis plays Oak Ridge at 4 p.m. at American River College. The Trojans (19-9) finished second in the Delta River League.
Notes: Eckels said he thought several times about Heinig’s Post 77 American Legion 15-strikeout performance (June 30, 2007 vs. San Mateo). With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, an Eckels slider got Wildcat Jordan Johnson to seemingly check his swing. When Hatamiya appealed, that Heinig angel floated over toward first-base umpire Mel Cassion, who immediately said “Yes, he did!” Strikeout No. 16. You could almost hear Scotty yell “Atta boy, Ben!” … From the As If He Needed More Help Dept.: In the middle of the fifth, while Eckels warmed up, the Franklin PA played “Sweet Caroline.” Eckels girlfriend (Caroline Johnson) was in the stands, as usual, rooting him on. “Did I hear it? Yeah,” said the pitcher, laughing. “And I usually don’t pay attention to that stuff. But I heard that song.” Indeed. He struck out the side in the bottom of the inning.
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 747-8047.