LODI — Chandler Bengston woke up Central Catholic’s bats with a loud two-run dinger that sparked a game-breaking, two-out rally.
Sierra, meanwhile, was silenced by hard-throwing ace Matt Palazzo.
The Raiders of Modesto were powered by a seven-run third inning in Wednesday’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoff opener at Tony Zupo Field, and Palazzo fired 15 strikeouts in six innings to highlight an emphatic 9-0 win.
Central Catholic (22-5) meets Manteca (17-7) this Saturday in the best-of-three semifinals.
It was perhaps a preview of what’s to come for the Timberwolves and the rest of the Valley Oak League. In two years, Central Catholic, the powerhouse of the Western Athletic Conference, will debut in the VOL.
“I heard a lot of things about them, but I heard a lot of mixed things,” Sierra coach Jack Thomson said. “I heard they were OK — that was a very good team.”
Sierra (16-10-1), making its first postseason appearance in eight years, had a chance to strike first after Kyle Oden and Dakota Conners drew back-to-back, one-out walks in the opening frame. Palazzo rung up two strikeouts to get out of the inning, and after issuing a leadoff walk to Joseph Collett in the second he struck out the side in order.
Palazzo went on to pitch three perfect innings until giving up a walk to Jacob Souza in the sixth. Kyle Oden then reached on an infield single with still no outs. Sierra’s best chance at breaking the shutout was stymied by a groundout and Palazzo’s final two strikeouts.
The Timberwolves didn’t get the ball out of the infield all game. Matt Clark pitched to five batters — walking two and fanning three — in the seventh inning, as he and Palazzo combined for the one-hitter.
“Their pitcher is very good,” Thomson said. “He struggled a little early with his command but after the third inning he was lights out. He threw a breaking ball for strikes and had good high school velocity.”
Sierra’s three pitchers struggled to stay in the strike zone, as they hit two batters and walked eight. Central Catholic did earn a lot of its runs, though. After Bengston clubbed his two-run homer in the third, John Mundt yanked a two-run double and was followed by RBI singles from Jonathan Weatherred at Clark. Bengston, Clark and Weatherred all finished 2 for 3.
The Raiders scratched across two more in the fourth with Andrew Urrutia and Bradley Nightengale supplying one-run hits. Central had chances to enforce the mercy rule but left four batters stranded in the fourth and five innings combined and 10 total.
“Disappointed that we couldn’t get through that (third) inning to keep it at two runs or so and keep it a game,” Thomson said. “These guys had a good year to get to where they did, but it’s never fun to finish a season the way we did.”