ROYERSFORD — When the high school baseball season started, Bret Clarke was buried in the Spring-Ford pitching rotation like the prize in a Cracker Jacks box.
A month later, you'd be hard-pressed to find a hotter hurler in the area than the Rams' junior right-hander.
Clarke continued his mastery of Pioneer Athletic Conference hitters Monday night at Ram Stadium, firing a one-hit shutout with 13 strikeouts as first-place Spring-Ford defeated neighboring rival Pope John Paul II 5-0 in a battle of league title contenders.
Connor Murphy went 2-for-4 with a homer and Ryan Markey drove in two runs for the first-place Rams (10-1, 10-1), who have won eight straight games since a 6-2 loss to two-time defending PAC-10 champion Boyertown and have outscored their opposition 61-6 during that span — with five shutouts.
Clarke has been a big reason for the streak with his meteoric mound rise.
After tossing 4.1 innings of three-hit shutout relief in the aforementioned Boyertown game, he followed it up with a three-hit shutout in a 2-0 victory over previously unbeaten Methacton and another three-hitter (with 12 strikeouts) in a 10-1 win over Upper Perkiomen.
"I knew I had the stuff,' said Clarke, who Spring-Ford coach Bruce Brobst had considered his fourth pitcher back in the preseason. "But I had to prove myself with all the older guys in front of me.'
He made believers out of the Golden Panthers (8-3, 9-3), who could manage just Sean Williamson's two-out flare down the right-field line that second baseman Murphy couldn't haul in.
"He was competing,' first-year PJP coach John Duffy said of Clarke. "He was throwing strikes. He went right at our guys and dared them to hit him, and we didn't. All the credit in the world to him. He came out and pretty much shut us down. When you get a pitching performance like that, you're going to win a lot of ballgames.'
Spring-Ford scratched across a run in the first inning when leadoff man Connor Klemann singled and eventually scored on Dave Gulati's double-play groundout.
The Rams got some breathing room in a three-run fourth highlighted by Zach Smiley's sacrifice fly and Ryan Markey's two-run Texas League single to shallow right field.
Then in the fifth, Murphy unloaded a solo blast to left for the final margin.
That was plenty for Clarke, who mostly used his fastball while mixing in a curve and change. He collected no fewer than 11 of his Ks from the fourth inning on in a 124-pitch effort that also included five walks.
"Having confidence with my fastball has been big,' he said. "I'm getting a lot of first-pitch strikes, and then my curve ball's working.'
Not much hasn't been working for Clarke since he first toed the slab this spring.
"He came out of nowhere,' Brobst said. "Every appearance he's come in, he's been dominating, and there's still a lot more in him. He loves getting the baseball, and the guys love playing behind him. They really played a solid game of baseball tonight and did all the things we can do.'
PJP ace righty Josh Lafferty absorbed the loss, allowing six hits, four runs and three walks over four innings while striking out two ... Klemann stole two bases for the Rams. ... Leadoff man Kyle Miller drew two walks for PJP.
Follow Darryl Grumling on Twitter at @MercSmokinD