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Top-seeded California eliminates North Catholic in WPIAL Class A playoffs

| Thursday, May 15, 2014, 1:48 a.m.

It wasn't pretty, but the undefeated and top-seeded California baseball team earned a 2-0 win over eighth-seeded Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic on Wednesday in Class A quarterfinal game.

North Catholic outhit Cal, 5-3, but Cal received a dominant pitching performance from Josh Luko and solid defense to squeak out the win.

“I don't know, the offense just wasn't there (Wednesday),” Cal coach Nick Damico said. “But like I keep telling the kids, pitching and defense wins championships. ... Credit to North Catholic, they played very well and shut us down (Wednesday).”

Luko was efficient, using 87 pitches to scatter five hits and strike out 13 in his fourth shutout of the season.

Luko struck out nine of the 10 North Catholic batters at least once, and his only free pass was a hit batsman in the bottom of the seventh.

Luko found himself in trouble, as all six of the North Catholic (9-8) batters who reached base wound up in scoring position, but none were able to cross the plate.

“I just concentrated on throwing strikes and trusting my fielders,” Luko said. “They were chasing the high fastball, but I was confident in the guys behind me to get the job done, especially after they put guys on base.”

After two quick outs in the top of the third, center fielder Aaron Previsky walked, stole second and scored when Ron Baron's grounder trickled under North Catholic shortstop Jake Matchner's glove.

Cal went on to load the bases in the inning, but Brandon Nataro struck out designated hitter Gavin Anderson looking to end the threat.

Cal (18-0) added another run in the top of the fourth, when left fielder Casey Zaichek walked, stole second and scored on Luko's sacrifice fly. It was the first of only two innings where the Trojans did not strand a runner on base.

But that was the only offense Cal was able to manufacture against Nataro and Matchner, who also pitched.

Thanks to the Trojans' typically outstanding plate discipline — they took six walks — they had base runners, but they struck out eight times, left eight men on base and went 0 for 10 with runners in scoring position.

“We had a week off and came out flat. I just wasn't expecting that at all,” Damico said.

“I kept waiting for our bats to wake up and for us to have a big inning, but it didn't happen. But that's a testament to the kids that we can still win a game like this.”

Baron, Jake Columbus and Louden Conte recorded Cal's three hits, all singles, while Zaichek walked twice and stole two bases.

Cal advances to the semifinals, where they will play for a spot in the WPIAL Class A title game against Sewickley Academy.

“We have to get better on offense,” Damico said. “As good as we have been all year, I just don't see how we get past the next round hitting like we did (Wednesday) and our past few games, really. We need to pick it up offensively.”

Donnie Tasser is a freelance writer.

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