BURBANK — Providence High's baseball team suffered its first Liberty League defeat of the season Tuesday evening to familiar foe and league stalwart Buckley.
The Pioneers will again look to overcome recent struggles against the Griffins on Thursday, who clinched at least a share of the title with the 5-1 victory at Ralph Foy Park. It is their fourth consecutive league championship.
Providence, meanwhile, has its eyes set on its first league title since 1996. To prevail, though, skipper Steve Knez would like to see more aggression at the plate, a major factor he attributed the team's first loss since April 20.
"Too many Ks," said Knez, whose team struck out 10 times against Buckley starting pitcher Victor Noval. "You can't win a close game with that many strikeouts. Cut them in half, put five in play, and it might make a difference in the ballgame."
The Pioneers (14-8, 8-1) haven't fared well in close games against Buckley in recent history. Tuesday's loss is the third consecutive dating back to last season.
The season-ending series has been anticipated by the Pioneers all season.
But the excitement didn't translate as Providence was at times timid and too patient at the plate, while Buckley played small ball efficiently throughout the contest to create separation. Lead-off base runners in the second and fourth innings were both followed up with sacrifice bunts that put a runner in scoring position and eventually led to a run in each inning.
Taylor Ross' sacrifice fly scored Isaac Rose for the game's first run in the second. Providence starting pitcher Sean Holt walked Rose to start the inning — one of three lead-off walks issued.
Buckley sprayed three singles in the fourth, including Alec Gondobintoro's knock that gave the Griffins their second run.
In the sixth inning, Buckley continued the trend with a sacrifice bunt that moved Ross to second after he was hit by a pitch to start the inning. The Griffins scored two in the frame.
With Thomas Keller pitching, Buckley capped the scoring with one more run in the fifth, increasing its lead to four.
"A team like Providence is going to compete and they're obviously one of the better teams in league," Buckley Coach TJ Runnells said. "We wanted to advance runners as often as we could to get runs across. It's absolutely our game plan and yeah, it's small ball, but against a good team you get it any way you can."
Providence showed potent baserunning to pick up its lone run. With Dante Cano on first and Sage Del Castillo on third and two outs, Knez called for a double steal. Cano and Del Castillo executed perfectly as Del Castillo stole home safely.
Marcus Angrisani followed with a single, giving Providence runners on first and third. Noval, however, was able to notch one of his 10 strikeouts to stop the threat.
For the game, Providence managed five hits — all singles. Early on, the Pioneers got good contact but came up short. Del Castillo sent one to deep left only to see a diving catch at the warning track. It would have easily scored Holt, who was on first with a walk.
"We hit it hard, but they made some great plays," said Knez, who received six innings from Holt, who struck out four. "And then they played small ball every time they had a runner on first. Their pitcher was good ... threw strikes, didn't walk too many batters."
Matthew Meza used his speed in the seventh as the team tried to rally from a 5-1 deficit. The junior legged out an infield single and beat the throw to second on a fielder's choice. Unfortunately for Providence, Meza was the lone baserunner in the seventh and stayed on the base paths as the game was closed out by Buckley, setting up Thursday's must win.