- Greg Wille
COSTLY MISTAKES: Uncharacteristic Belton errors spark Sachse as No. 6 Tigers lose series opener, 7-2
THE WHEELS ARE TURNING: Belton junior pitcher TJ Johnson comes forward to field a third-inning sacrifice bunt by Garland Sachse's Davis Tea as Tigers senior catcher Cooper Babcock reacts during Game 1 of a Class 6A area-round playoff series Thursday evening at Tiger Field. Johnson threw to third base for the force out, but on the next play Belton committed two throwing errors and the Mustangs scored two runs on their way to a 7-2 victory. Game 2 is at 1 p.m. Saturday at Sachse, where coach Mark Krueger's sixth-ranked Tigers (25-4-1) must win two games to advance to next week's Region II quarterfinals. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
BELTON – Although the Belton baseball team certainly has several skilled and capable hitters, the constants for the Tigers during their outstanding 2021 season have been strong pitching and sharp defense.
Thanks in large part to its guys on the mound and the glove work of their teammates, sixth-ranked Belton was riding a 12-game winning streak entering the opening game of its best-of-three Class 6A area-round playoff series against Garland Sachse on Thursday evening at Tiger Field.
However, in potentially the Tigers' final home game this season, their struggles on defense were so severe that they probably would have needed top-notch pitching and hitting to have a chance to overcome them – and neither one of those departments was running at full capacity, either.
Belton uncharacteristically committed four vital errors along with other defensive lapses, and opportunistic Sachse made the Tigers pay dearly for them as the Mustangs led 4-0 after 2½ innings, allowed only one hit and seized a thorough 7-2 victory.
“That's very unlike us tonight defensively,” said Belton fifth-year head coach Mark Krueger, whose Tigers (25-4-1) must win two games on Sachse's field Saturday afternoon to keep their season alive. “We'll regroup in the morning and work on some things and get ready for Saturday.”
The best-of-three series resumes at 1 p.m. Saturday at Sachse. If Game 3 becomes necessary, it will begin 30 minutes after the conclusion of Game 2.
Krueger said he believes his experienced, senior-laden squad will make the necessary adjustments and respond well when the District 12-6A champion Tigers travel to play the Mustangs (18-12-1) again.
“You tell them, 'That's the reason we play two out of three,'” said Krueger, whose club swept Duncanville in a best-of-three bi-district series last weekend. “That's why we don't like a single game, because anything can happen in a one-gamer. And you saw that tonight. We'll regroup and we'll be ready for Saturday.”
Belton hadn't lost since its 2-0 setback March 26 at rival Temple, the Tigers' only blemish during their 13-1 charge through 12-6A.
After beating Tyler Legacy 4-3 at home and 3-1 on the road last week, 9-6A runner-up Sachse carried positive momentum into its matchup with Belton. And for one game at least, the Mustangs – playing a true road game in a boisterous environment – handled the second-round pressure better than the Tigers did.
“Man, Belton's a really good team, and I just think they made a couple of mistakes early and it kind of gave us some confidence, especially playing here in this beautiful park,” said Sachse 16th-year head coach Chris Burrow, whose squad seemed to thrive in the lively postseason atmosphere as the teams' supporters traded mostly good-natured barbs throughout the game. “That's all I hear, is how good they are. You come down here and they've got a great fan section in the stands. In district, the farthest we travel is like 10 minutes.”
Belton plans to give the ball to senior right-handed ace Brady Shadrick (11-0) in Game 2. Tigers senior lefty Jason Bonnett (7-1) also is rested and ready to pitch.
“That definitely helps,” Krueger said.
Left-handed starter Carson Sowell and righty relievers Justin Mascorro and Jason Scrantom combined for a one-hitter with nine strikeouts in the opener against Belton, whose lone hit was a fifth-inning single by designated hitter Jacob Estrada. Mary Hardin-Baylor commitment Cooper Babcock and Estrada drew consecutive bases-loaded walks in the third inning to account for the Tigers' only runs.
LEFTY VS. LEFTY: Belton designated hitter Jacob Estrada bats against Garland Sachse starting pitcher Carson Sowell during the second inning of Game 1 of the Class 6A area-round playoff series Thursday evening at Tiger Field. Sowell got Estrada to ground out back to the mound after a battle of 10-plus pitches, but Estrada drew a bases-loaded walk against Sowell in the third and produced the Tigers' only hit, a fifth-inning single against Mustangs reliever Justin Mascorro. Sachse seized a 7-2 road win over sixth-ranked Belton. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Sachse can use Nathan Darden (8-3) as its Game 2 starting pitcher as it shoots for a sweep, or use someone else and save Darden for a potential Game 3.
The Belton-Sachse winner will advance to next week's Region II quarterfinals against 10-6A runner-up Rockwall-Heath (29-8-1) or 11-6A champion Mansfield (19-12-1). Rockwall-Heath leads that series 1-0 after a 5-2 win.
Junior TJ Johnson pitched 6 2/3 effective innings in Belton's series-opening 8-0 home win over Duncanville last Friday, but the 6-foot-6 right-hander encountered immediate difficulties in the top of the first inning against Sachse.
Johnson walked Mustangs leadoff batter Jhett Creel on four pitches. Third baseman Josh Westbrook then fielded Davis Tea's sacrifice bunt, but his low throw skidded past first baseman Caleb Alexander and into foul territory, with Belton's first error sending Creel to third and Tea to second.
Johnson then recorded two consecutive flyouts that didn't allow the runners to tag up, but with two outs he uncorked a low pitch that senior catcher Babcock did his best to block as he slid to his right. Creel initially hesitated between third and home as Babcock scrambled to retrieve the ball as it rolled away from him on the first base side, but Creel then decided to try to score.
Johnson ran in to cover the plate and an accurate throw from Babcock from roughly 25 feet away likely would have been in time for Johnson to tag Creel out, but the catcher's rushed throw was too low for Johnson to catch and Belton's second error allowed Creel to score for a 1-0 Mustangs lead.
Sachse starter Sowell, a Grayson College signee who won Game 1 against Tyler Legacy last week, limited Belton to Alexander's two-out walk in the bottom of the first before Johnson tallied two strikeouts in a perfect second. Sowell walked UMHB commitment Keagan Wolfe with two outs in the second but struck out Johnson.
The third inning was when the game began to go off the proverbial rails.
Alex Rangel led off Sachse's third by chopping a single over Johnson's head – no easy feat against the long, high-scoring basketball player – and Creel deftly pushed a bunt to the right side for a hit, although Johnson fielded Tea's sacrifice bunt attempt, spun and fired the ball to Westbrook at third to get the force out on a close play.
Jesse Ponce then hit a would-be double-play ground ball to second baseman Scott Gurnett, but his sidearm throw to second sailed wide of shortstop Ben Jones and into left field, allowing Creel to score for a 2-0 game. And when left fielder Aaron Bain's incoming throw to third went wide of its target and rolled away, Tea dashed home to make it 3-0 as the Mustangs took advantage of two errors to score two runs on one continuous, disastrous play for Belton.
Sachse's lead then grew to 4-0 in the third when designated hitter Darden ripped a two-out RBI single to center.
However, the Tigers answered back against Sowell in their half of the third. With one out, leadoff batter Gurnett reached on an infield error and Sowell hit Jones with a pitch before Alexander drew his second walk to load the bases. Sowell received a coach visit on the mound, but it didn't help much. He proceeded to walk Babcock and Estrada, forcing in two runs as Belton sliced its deficit in half at 4-2.
But with the bases loaded and still only one out, Sowell (2-2) dug deep to avoid further damage. Shadrick's flyout to right wasn't deep enough for Alexander to try to tag up and score, and Wolfe fouled out to the first baseman as Belton stranded three runners.
Johnson (3-2) came back with a quick fourth that included his diving catch of Rangel's soft liner to the mound. Johnson's screaming line drive to lead off the Tigers' fourth was snared by leaping left fielder Tea. But after Sowell walked No. 9 batter Bain, Burrow decided to remove the southpaw after only 3 1/3 innings in favor of big senior righty Mascorro.
“I think he just got into that situation with the fans and the atmosphere and being in that,” Burrow said about Sowell, who repeatedly struggled to keep his footing on the mound dirt. “The last two outings he's done well, and there's been games where he's gotten himself out of situations like that. We usually want to get five (innings from Sowell) and then we come in with (Scrantom).”
Mascorro promptly got Gurnett to fly out to left-center and Jones to line out to second to end the fourth.
Belton needed to prevent Sachse from increasing its lead, but that's not what happened in the fifth. Johnson walked Creel and Tea to start the frame before making a diving catch of Ponce's popped-up bunt near the third base line.
That's when the Tigers were bitten once again by a defensive miscue. Harper Howard hit a grounder to Gurnett, who was in position to start an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play. But Gurnett's throw to the covering Jones at second was high enough that Jones had to jump to catch it, and the shortstop was unable to get his foot back down on the bag for the force out, though he did throw out Howard at first on the play.
With two outs and two runners in scoring position, Darden made Belton pay for its missed defensive opportunity. He popped a single to right to drive in two key runs as Sachse extended its lead to 6-2. After Johnson struck out Chris Marcellus with a big-breaking curveball to end the fifth, his night on the mound was done.
“I thought he pitched well enough to win,” Krueger said about Johnson, who allowed four singles and three walks and had four strikeouts. “The difference was us not playing error-free, but also (Sachse) got the key hits when they needed to. They didn't get many hits, but when they got them, it was big for them.
“Then when you look on the flip side for us offensively, we didn't get the big hit. We had bases loaded there (with one out in the third) and we scored (only) two runs, and the two runs came on walks. We had seven walks overall but couldn't capitalize.”
Alexander drew his third straight walk to begin Belton's fifth, and the Tigers finally produced their first hit when Estrada grounded a hard single up the middle with one out. But Mascorro was unfazed, striking out Shadrick swinging with a fastball and getting Wolfe looking at an outside-corner fastball.
“Mascorro threw a lot for us in our tournaments, but in district he didn't get a lot of innings and he didn't get a chance to throw in our last series,” Burrow said. “But man, he just throws strikes. It was good to see him come out and do that. I'm very proud of him to do that in that situation.”
Big lefty Estrada relieved Johnson to begin the sixth and quickly got three groundouts. Johnson reached on an error to start the Belton sixth and eventually reached third with two outs, but Mascorro stranded him there when Jones flew out to left.
Sachse added an insurance run in the seventh against Estrada. After East Texas Baptist commitment Jones made a fully outstretched diving catch of Creel's liner, Tea singled, took second on a wild pitch and scored on Ponce's double to right-center to make it 7-2.
Hard-throwing righty Scrantom didn't allow Belton's offense to get any sort of a comeback going in the seventh, striking out Alexander, Babcock and Estrada with fastballs to secure Sachse's Game 1 victory on the road.
“They're going to pitch well. And you really didn't get to see it very much tonight, but they're going to play good defense,” Krueger said about the Mustangs. “They're very similar to us, and so when one of us has an off night, you see the result.”
Burrow estimated that Sachse has advanced to the second round of the playoffs six times during his tenure at the school but said the Mustangs haven't yet reached the third round.
On Saturday afternoon, it will take two consecutive road wins by Belton with the Tigers' backs to the wall to keep Sachse from breaking through.
“The senior group, that's the leaders on our team and I think they'll regroup fine,” Krueger said. “It's good that we have a day in between, so that's really to our benefit as well.”
HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL PLAYOFFS
CLASS 6A AREA ROUND
Garland Sachse 7, No. 6 Belton 2
Sachse 103 020 1 – 7 6 2
Belton 002 000 0 – 2 1 4
Sachse: Carson Sowell, Justin Mascorro (4), Jason Scrantom (7) and Jhett Creel. Belton: TJ Johnson, Jacob Estrada (6) and Cooper Babcock. W – Sowell (2-2). L – Johnson (3-2). 2B – S: Jesse Ponce.
Highlights – S: Nathan Darden 2-for-3, walk, three runs batted in; Creel 1-for-2, two walks, three runs; Davis Tea 1-for-2, walk, three runs; Ponce RBI double, run; Mascorro four strikeouts in 2 2/3 innings pitched; Scrantom three strikeouts in one inning pitched; B: Estrada 1-for-3, bases-loaded walk, two strikeouts in two innings pitched; Johnson four strikeouts, four hits allowed in five innings pitched; Babcock RBI walk; Caleb Alexander three walks; Ben Jones hit by pitch, run.
Records – Sachse 18-12-1; Belton 25-4-1.
Notes – Sachse wins Game 1 of best-of-three Class 6A area-round series; Game 2 is at 1 p.m. Saturday at Sachse High School; if necessary, Game 3 will be played 30 minutes after the conclusion of Game 2; the Belton-Sachse series winner will play the winner of the Rockwall-Heath vs. Mansfield series (Rockwall-Heath leads 1-0) next week in the Region II quarterfinals.
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