KNIGHTS TURN TABLES: Temple breaks down in sixth as Harker Heights scores seven to seize key 7-3 win
HARD-EARNED VICTORY: Harker Heights senior right-hander Austin Mitchell recorded eight strikeouts while pitching 6 2/3 innings in the Knights' 7-3 win over Temple in Tuesday night's District 12-6A game at Hallford Field. Mitchell (3-1) scattered six hits, walked four batters and hit two. The third-place Wildcats (15-9, 5-4) led 2-0 after four innings, but the second-place Knights (14-10-1, 7-2) used walks, hit batters and four Temple errors to erupt for seven runs in the sixth. Mitchell outdueled Temple senior righty Aaron Wagaman (4-4), who had seven strikeouts and allowed four hits in 5 1/3 innings. The Wildcats play at third-place Killeen Ellison at 7 p.m. Friday and at league leader Belton at 1 p.m. Saturday. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
The Temple Wildcats have played a slew of ultra-close, pitchers-duel games during the course of the District 12-6A baseball season.
Some of those nail-biters have gone their way, with home victories of 2-0 against rival Belton – the Tigers' only league defeat – and 1-0 against Killeen. And some have not, including 1-0 road losses at Harker Heights and Copperas Cove (eight innings) and last Friday's 4-3, nine-inning setback at Bryan.
Striving to snap a two-game losing streak, third-place Temple found itself competing in yet another low-scoring, who-will-blink-first battle against second-place Harker Heights on Tuesday night in front of a lively crowd at Hallford Field.
But even though the Wildcats grabbed a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning and also scored the game's final run, a disastrous top of the sixth proved to be too much for pitcher Aaron Wagaman and Temple to overcome.
Harker Heights took full advantage of a series of walks, hit batters and Temple errors to explode for all of its runs during the game-changing sixth, and pitcher Austin Mitchell's 6 2/3 strong innings helped the Knights stave off the Wildcats and earn a 7-3 comeback win.
After sharing the 12-6A lead with Belton and Heights at 5-1 entering last week, Temple (15-9) now finds itself tied for third place with Copperas Cove and Killeen Ellison at 5-4 following the Wildcats' third consecutive gut-wrenching loss.
“These are way tougher,” said senior right-hander Wagaman (4-4), who's absorbed defeats in his last two starts despite shutting out Cove through seven innings and blanking Heights through five. “The extra-inning games, you want to win them because you're going the extra mile. But then again, getting blown out at home is not a good feeling.”
Wagaman and Temple appeared to be in good shape as they entered the sixth inning with a 2-0 lead, but the Knights (14-10-1 overall, 7-2 district) began their uprising with a single, a walk and an error. They didn't stop until they had forced Wagaman off the mound, sent 11 batters to the plate and scored seven runs, aided largely by four Wildcat errors and three consecutive runs brought in by bases-loaded walks or hit batters.
“Walks. You put guys on base late in the game like that, the momentum starts to change there. In that situation, you've got to come out and get three outs and get back in the dugout,” Temple third-year head coach Dallas Robertson said. “You can't let a team hang around and you can't give them free bases. We've been playing great defense and pitching well all year long, so it is disappointing right there, just putting them on and not making them hit their way on. That's our philosophy and what we believe in, but that's what got that inning going.”
Temple senior right-hander Aaron Wagaman delivers a pitch to Harker Heights junior leadoff batter Easton Culp during the first inning of the host Wildcats' 7-3 loss to the Knights in Tuesday evening's District 12-6A game at Hallford Field. Wagaman walked Culp before escaping a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the first, but second-place Heights overcame a 2-0 deficit by scoring all seven of its runs in the top of the sixth en route to handing third-place Temple its third straight defeat. Wagaman pitched 5 1/3 innings and struck out seven. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Harker Heights eighth-year head coach Randy Culp said his team, like Temple, has grown accustomed to performing the tightrope act. All six of the Knights' previous 12-6A wins were decided by one or two runs, including a 1-0 decision against visiting Temple on March 19.
“We've been winning a lot of one-run ballgames, which is fine, but it sure does make you nervous,” said Culp, whose squad rebounded from last Friday's 3-1 home loss to Ellison. “I know (Temple) kind of imploded with their pitching (in the sixth) and I hate that for them, but when it's a game like we've had and it's a pressure situation, somebody's going to blink or crack, and I'm just glad it wasn't us tonight.
“Temple's played a lot of tight games like that, and that's kind of our district this year. Anybody can beat anybody on a given night. We've got to keep winning those tight ones.”
When Mitchell (3-1) recorded the final out in the fifth on a diving catch by center fielder Jacob Bermea, he and the Knights trailed 2-0. By the time he threw his next pitch, he owned a 7-2 lead thanks to Heights' sudden seven-run barrage in the sixth.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound right-hander almost threw a complete game but reached the 110-pitch limit while striking out Wagaman with the bases loaded for the second out in the seventh. Junior shortstop Easton Culp then relieved him and got Temple senior power hitter Isaiah Fach to hit a ground ball to third base for the game-ending force out.
“It took everything. It was a hard game, because if you leave something up, they're going to hit the ball. They're a good team,” said Mitchell, who permitted six hits, struck out eight batters, walked four and hit two. “I just had to have my catcher (junior Tanner Wells) help me out.”
Said Randy Culp about Mitchell: “Man, he's a bulldog. The performance he had tonight, he's been doing that all year. He's a gutsy guy and works really, really hard. He's one of our seniors that is playing. We only have a couple in the lineup. He works fast and tonight he relied on our defense a little bit more. He's usually a 10-strikeout guy.”
Temple senior catcher Bryan Williams, also an outstanding starting pitcher with multiple district shutouts, suffered an ankle injury near the backstop while chasing Jett Millsap's foul popup three batters into the sixth. In obvious pain, Williams continued to catch until Terry Skaggs replaced him one batter into the seventh.
“He rolled his ankle and we knew we had to get ice on it pretty quick,” Robertson said about Williams, who pitched a complete game in Temple's 1-0 loss at Heights and two more in the Wildcats' 2-0 win over Belton and a 1-0 victory over Killeen.
Wagaman might as well have been named Houdini after he loaded the bases with no outs in the first inning but prevented Heights from scoring. He walked Easton Culp, then fielded a Wells bunt but slipped and threw too late to second before Bryce Haws' perfect bunt along the third base line went for a hit.
Wagaman struck out Mitchell with a sharp curveball in the dirt, then sophomore third baseman Naeten Mitchell fielded Millsap's grounder and threw home to catcher Williams for the force out before Williams fired to first to complete the key 5-2-3 double play.
“I'm always comfortable on the mound with a defense like ours,” Wagaman said. “I think we're one of the best in the district.”
From the second through fourth innings, Wagaman struck out two Knights in each frame while allowing only one hit, a two-out double by Wells in the third.
MITCHELL VS. MITCHELL: Temple sophomore Naeten Mitchell puts down a successful sacrifice bunt against Harker Heights senior pitcher Austin Mitchell during the third inning of the host Wildcats' 7-3 loss to the Knights in District 12-6A action Tuesday night at Hallford Field. Naeten Mitchell later hit a run-scoring double during Temple's two-run fourth inning and was hit by a pitch and scored the Wildcats' final run in the seventh. Austin Mitchell compiled eight strikeouts while pitching 6 2/3 innings. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Temple's first serious threat against Austin Mitchell came in the third, when Chance Guillen ripped a leadoff single to center and moved to second on Naeten Mitchell's sacrifice bunt. No. 9 batter Kobe Smith then walked to give the Wildcats two runners aboard with one out, but Austin Mitchell struck out Johnny Donoso with a curve in the dirt and retired Issac Ramos on a groundout.
Temple's offense finally broke through in the fourth. Cleanup batter Wagaman lined a one-out single to left and courtesy runner Dylan Hinkle took second on a balk before Fach struck out on a curve. Austin Mitchell threw a wild pitch that sent Hinkle to third, then walked Xavier Padilla and uncorked another wild pitch into the dirt, allowing Hinkle to sprint home and narrowly beat the tag for a 1-0 Wildcats advantage.
After Guillen was hit by a pitch, Naeten Mitchell hit a sharp grounder that went over the bag at third and kicked up chalk for a double, driving in Padilla to extend Temple's lead to 2-0.
“We've had these tight games, these one-run games, and you've just got to find a way to get a hit there with runners in scoring position,” Robertson said. “We didn't do that up until the fourth with the double. That was the hit we hadn't had in a while with runners in scoring position.”
Heights responded with a threat in the fifth, as Michael Saiz led off with a single to right and Eric Moore II walked. Easton Culp then dropped down a sacrifice bunt and initially was ruled safe at first after second baseman Ramos, covering first on the play, had to jump to catch Wagaman's high throw before landing on the bag. However, Temple vociferously argued the call, and the two umpires conferred with each other and reversed the call to Culp being out, much to the chagrin of the Knights and their fans.
Heights still had two runners in scoring position with one out, but Saiz got trapped in a rundown between third and home and was tagged out before Wagaman escaped when Wells flew out to right.
After Austin Mitchell worked around a one-out Ramos single in the Temple fifth, the Knights completely turned the tables on Wagaman and the suddenly self-destructive Wildcats.
Haws popped a leadoff single in the sixth, then Austin Mitchell walked and Naeten Mitchell's low throw to first on Millsap's grounder went for an error that loaded the bases with no outs. After Bermea's flyout to center was too shallow to bring in a run, the play that haunted Temple occurred.
Axel Rios chopped a hard grounder that Mitchell fielded a few steps behind the bag at third, with his momentum carrying him away from home plate. Instead of scooting over to step on third for a sure force out, Mitchell made a hurried throw home in an attempt to force out Haws and preserve Wagaman's shutout. But Mitchell's off-balance throw sailed well over the head of catcher Williams, bringing in Heights' first run for a 2-1 game and keeping the bases loaded with one out.
“Not getting an out on a ground ball, that right there fed it,” Robertson said of the Knights' huge breakthrough in the sixth. “He was trying to throw it home to save that run, but we just need to get an out in that situation. You get that out right there, it's (Temple leading) 2-1 with two outs and a different story. Outs always kill rallies.”
The Wildcats then lost the lead when Wagaman walked Saiz to force in the tying run, and Heights seized its first lead at 3-2 when his pitch hit Moore, prompting Robertson to relieve Wagaman with Padilla.
“Walks. That definitely led to that inning,” Wagaman said.
Said Robertson: “I thought Wagaman was good all the way up until that point. Now, he did (have to overcome trouble) that first inning, but I've seen him waver in the first inning before. He had it going good there in the middle. But especially when you get the runs that you need, you need to come out and put a stamp on the game right there.”
Padilla hit Culp's backside with a pitch to make it 4-2. Wells hit a sacrifice fly to right for a 5-2 game, and the throw back to the infield veered off line. Williams tracked it down and tried to throw Moore out at third, but his throw skipped away just far enough for the speedy Moore to race home to make it 6-2. Haws then ripped a shot that left fielder Smith was unable to catch, with Temple's fourth error of the inning allowing Heights to score its seventh and final run.
“We're just having too many free innings or long innings, and it all starts on the mound,” Wagaman said. “I think we did fine at the plate. We did way better than last time we played them, when we only had one hit (against Haws)."
Trailing 7-2, Temple made one final push in the bottom of the seventh. Naeten Mitchell led off by getting hit by an Austin Mitchell pitch, then with one out Donoso singled, Ramos walked and pinch hitter David Rios hit an infield single that scored Mitchell to make it 7-3.
Wagaman represented the tying run as he stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and one out, but Austin Mitchell delivered three of his best curveballs of the night to strike him out.
“That last one I struck out on," Wagaman said, "that was a nice curveball.”
Added Robertson: “Mitchell has pretty good velocity and pretty good control of the curveball. Any time you do both of those, it's difficult (for the offense). You throw a good curveball, your fastball looks faster. He did a very good job tonight.”
Heights then was required to replace Mitchell on the mound because he reached the 110-pitch limit against Wagaman. Randy Culp summoned his son Easton from shortstop to face Fach, the hulking first baseman who pitched a scoreless seventh and came up with the potential to tie the game with a grand slam. But Fach's grounder to third turned into a routine force out that sealed the Knights' comeback win.
“That's one thing I'm real proud of, is that we're pitching well and playing really sound defense,” said Randy Culp, whose Knights last reached the Class 6A state playoffs in 2018. “And tonight we hit a little bit better. We've been struggling hitting.
“We're one game back of Belton and we (host) Belton on Friday night, and we've got a three-game week, so anything can happen.”
The Knights will aim to avenge their 8-0 road loss against the district-leading Tigers.
PLAY BALL: The Temple (right) and Harker Heights baseball teams and the umpires stand for the national anthem before Tuesday evening's District 12-6A game at Hallford Field. The visiting Knights came back from a 2-0 deficit to win 7-3 and sweep the squads' season series 2-0. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Meanwhile, a once-surging Temple team that shared the district lead early last week now is battling to make sure it can earn one of 12-6A's four playoff berths. The Wildcats have five league games remaining, beginning at fellow third-place squad Ellison on Friday night before they shoot for a season sweep of Belton on Saturday afternoon at Tiger Field.
“It all starts with work ethic, and we're a senior-led group,” Wagaman said. “Tomorrow's going to be a big day for us. We need to grind it out. We're here in the morning in the weight room and after school for practice. It needs to be one of the best practices we've ever had.”
"They're resilient," Robertson said. "They're going to be ready to work tomorrow.”
HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL
Harker Heights 7, Temple 3
Heights 000 007 0 – 7 4 1
Temple 000 200 1 – 3 6 4
HH: Austin Mitchell, Easton Culp (7) and Tanner Wells. T: Aaron Wagaman, Xavier Padilla (6), Isaiah Fach (7) and Bryan Williams, Terry Skaggs (7). W – Mitchell (3-1). L – Wagaman (4-4). Sv – Culp (3). 2B – HH: Wells; T: Naeten Mitchell.
Highlights – HH: A. Mitchell eight strikeouts, six hits allowed in 6 2/3 innings; Bryce Haws 2-for-4, run; Culp, Eric Moore II, Axel Rios, Michael Saiz, Wells one run batted in each; T: Wagaman seven strikeouts, four hits allowed in 5 1/3 innings; N. Mitchell RBI double, run.
Records – Harker Heights 14-10-1 overall, 7-2 in District 12-6A; Temple 15-9, 5-4.
Notes – Harker Heights wins season series 2-0; Temple plays at Killeen Ellison at 7 p.m. Friday and at Belton at 1 p.m. Saturday; Harker Heights hosts Belton at 7 p.m. Friday and plays at Killeen Shoemaker on Saturday.