NOT DONE YET: Rowlett's pitching, key hit extend career as Academy overtakes Franklin to win series
CLUTCH PERFORMANCE: Academy junior pitcher/shortstop Blaine Rowlett delivered on the mound and at the plate Saturday afternoon as the Bumblebees rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat Franklin 4-3 in Game 3 of their Class 3A bi-district playoff series at Bryan's Nutrabolt Stadium. Rowlett had six strikeouts and allowed two runs while pitching the first four innings, and during the Bumblebees' four-run sixth he hit the go-ahead two-run single. Saturday's finale could have been the last career game for Rowlett, who is graduating high school one year early. He plans to attend Temple College and later transfer to Texas A&M. Academy (13-16) advanced to play Whitney (21-8) in next week's area round. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
BRYAN – Academy junior Blaine Rowlett is graduating from high school one year early to attend college, so Game 3 of the Bumblebees' Class 3A bi-district playoff series against Franklin on a warm Saturday afternoon at Nutrabolt Stadium had the potential to be the final game of his baseball career.
District 19-3A No. 4 seed Academy trailed 2-0 after Rowlett pitched the first four innings against 20-3A champion Franklin, then the Bees were down 3-0 through five.
But with one well-timed swing of his bat, Rowlett not only helped save his team's season but also extended his playing days by at least one week.
Aric Hickman hit a two-run single in the top of the sixth and No. 9 batter Rowlett soon followed with another two-run single, giving Academy a one-run lead that junior left-handed reliever John Tomasek protected by pitching scoreless sixth and seventh innings as the Bees charged back to stun the Lions and earn a dramatic 4-3 victory that propelled them into the area round.
As Rowlett accepted congratulations from excited teammates after the series-clinching comeback win, he clearly was overcome by emotion. When asked how he felt about his contributions to Academy's playoff survival, the slender shortstop and seldom-used pitcher was able to get out a brief comment that summed up his mood and that of the Bees.
“Feels really good,” said Rowlett, who plans to attend Temple College and then transfer to Texas A&M.
Academy third-year head coach Garrett Vail, whose squad will play Whitney in the second round, certainly didn't mind talking about Rowlett more than Rowlett talked about himself.
“Blaine did an outstanding job. He's the reason we stayed in that game and had the opportunity to come back and win,” Vail said after winning his first postseason series as the Bees' coach. “It's a very tough position to play shortstop all year and not get consistent innings (as a pitcher). He threw in tournaments and then had one inning when we figured out we were going to the playoffs. For him to step up today . . . that's the kind of thing that everybody's going to have to step up and help in their own way.”
Franklin (21-8) overwhelmed Academy (13-16) by a 12-2 score in six innings in Thursday evening's series opener at Nutrabolt, home of the Brazos Valley Bombers summer league team.
“Coach Vail gave us a little pregame speech (on Friday) from his old playing days,” Tomasek said, “but really we knew that Thursday wasn't our baseball and we just needed to go out and relax and play how we can."
Said Vail: “The message was just to control the controllables, and the outcome will be what it will be.”
Returning to the same ballpark Friday evening for Game 2, the Bees responded in the back-and-forth battle by scoring two runs in the bottom of the sixth to seize the lead and prevailing 3-2 to force Saturday's must-win Game 3.
Although Academy faced a 3-0 deficit entering the sixth, Vail said he was confident that the Bees were capable to putting together a late comeback to win the game.
“We're kind of going with the motto, 'Stand and bang,' and it just shows how much fight they have and how much they believe in each other,” Vail said. “I'm really proud of them.”
Said Rowlett about the Bees' key component: “Teamwork. We played good baseball.”
Academy advanced to challenge 17-3A runner-up Whitney (21-8) in the area round next week. The No. 20-ranked Wildcats swept Eustace with 3-0 and 3-1 wins. Vail said he expects it to be a best-of-three series played on a neutral field with artificial turf, with the days, times and location yet to be finalized.
Although Academy dealt 19-3A champion Cameron Yoe a late-season defeat, the Bees had to settle for the district's No. 4 seed after being swept by runner-up Rogers and third seed Caldwell. Tomasek said the fact that Academy was not predicted to beat league champion Franklin in the opening playoff round didn't bother him and his teammates. If anything, it served as additional motivation to prove the doubters wrong.
“Franklin is a great team. I don't think anybody expected us to win,” Tomasek (2-1) said after recording his second pitching victory in a span of less than 20 hours. “We knew that we played crappy in district. Going into this (series), we said, 'Placing doesn't matter. It's the playoffs and we're just staying alive here.' We were just looking at the next game and the game that we're in.”
Facing Franklin right-hander Cort Lowry in the series finale, Academy had a scoring opportunity in the top of the first inning. Lane Ward walked with two outs and reached second on a delayed steal, but right fielder Colton Payne raced in and made a sliding catch on Wyatt Gardner's shallow fly ball.
Academy junior right-hander Blaine Rowlett delivers a pitch to Franklin batter Dylan Rhoden during the first inning of the Bumblebees' 4-3 comeback win Saturday afternoon in Game 3 of a Class 3A bi-district playoff series in Bryan. Rowlett, who's usually Academy's starting shortstop, had six strikeouts and allowed five hits and two runs in four innings of work against the Lions. He hit the go-ahead two-run single during the Bees' four-run sixth inning. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Given the mound assignment in Game 3, Rowlett endured some control problems during the Lions' first. He walked the first three batters, though Josh Atomanczyk was thrown out trying to steal third base by freshman catcher Tyler Burnett. Rowlett struck out Dylan Rhoden before Lowry ripped a single to center to load the bases with two outs. It took almost 30 pitches, but Rowlett escaped with jam unscathed when Eric Gomez's line drive was snared by junior second baseman Darion Franklin.
The Bees advanced runners to first and second with one out in the second, but Lowry got Alex Hoffman to pop up before striking out Rowlett looking with a fastball.
The Lions then broke through in the second to grab a 1-0 lead. Payne hit a leadoff single, stole second and took third on Jake Atomanczyk's sacrifice bunt. But when Darren Daugherty hit a grounder to shortstop, freshman Zane Clark fired a strike home to Burnett, who tagged Payne for the second out. However, leadoff man Josh Atomanczyk then hammered a double down the line in left to drive in Daugherty from first.
Lowry pitched a scoreless third, then Franklin pushed its advantage to 2-0. Charlie Scarpinato reached on a leadoff error, stole second and scored when Lowry lined a one-out double to right-center. Academy limited the damage by tagging Lowry out in a rundown between third and home after he tried to score on Gomez's single.
Rowlett issued his fourth walk in the fourth, but Academy picked off that runner for the first out before Rowlett struck out Daugherty looking and fanned Josh Atomanczyk with a big-breaking curveball, giving the right-hander six strikeouts in four innings.
The Bees made a bid to get on the scoreboard in the fifth as leadoff batter Franklin hit a two-out infield single and stole second and third, but Lowry struck out Tomasek looking with a sharp curve to preserve the Lions' 2-0 advantage.
CLOSING TIME: Academy junior center fielder and left-handed pitcher John Tomasek pitched the final two innings Friday night to earn his first victory this season as the Bumblebees edged Franklin 3-2 at Bryan's Nutrabolt Stadium. In Saturday afternoon's third game of the Class 3A bi-district playoff series, Tomasek (2-1) pitched the final three innings in relief of junior starter Blaine Rowlett to record his second win in less than 20 hours as Academy charged back from a 3-0 deficit to defeat the Lions 4-3. Next for Tomasek and the Bees (13-16) is an area-round clash with No. 20-ranked Whitney (21-8) next week. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Tomasek is Academy's starting center fielder, but in the late innings he often morphs into a valuable pitcher. On Friday he pitched the final two innings in relief of sophomore righty starter Alex Lawton and earned his first win this season. In the series finale, Tomasek replaced Rowlett – who moved to shortstop – on the mound to begin the fifth.
“I love it. I love coming in and getting to finish out a game,” Tomasek said. “I felt great.”
Said Rowlett: “John plays a very key role.”
However, it wasn't initially smooth sailing for Tomasek, who walked Blake Autrey and hit Scarpinato. He struck out Rhoden, but Lowry poked a single to the right side, his third hit of the day, to load the bases with one out. Gomez's fielder's-choice grounder drove in Autrey for a 3-0 Franklin lead.
A deft defensive play by Tomasek prevented the Lions from adding another run. Payne hit a one-out dribbler that Tomasek fielded just inside the third base line before alertly reaching out and tagging the charging Scarpinato on the foot.
Entering the sixth, Academy had only six outs remaining and needed to score at least three runs to keep its season alive. Gardner (2-for-4, run) sparked the Bees' sixth-inning rally by slicing a one-out double to right, then Lowry hit Burnett and Lawton with pitches to load the bases before catcher Josh Atomanczyk relieved him on the mound.
Hickman, the sophomore first baseman who also delivered a vital hit in Friday's win, greeted Atomanczyk by lining a single to center to drive in Gardner and courtesy runner Hunter Bruggman to cut Academy's deficit to 3-2.
CRUCIAL CONNECTION: Academy sophomore first baseman Aric Hickman connects with a pitch from Franklin reliever Josh Atomanczyk for a two-run single to center field during a four-run sixth inning that propelled the Bumblebees from a 3-0 deficit to a 4-3 win Saturday in Game 3 of a Class 3A bi-district playoff series. Hickman and junior Blaine Rowlett hit two-run singles in the sixth for Academy (13-16), which will battle Whitney in the area round. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
“We were getting guys on base and having those opportunities, and we finally had someone come up who put the ball in play and created some pressure and capitalized on it,” Vail said. “We stayed with good, positive energy the whole time. We tried to keep it away from everything else that was going on in the game, and that helped us get that inning.”
Hoffman's flyout to left was too shallow to bring in the tying run, but Rowlett – who drove in the go-ahead run Friday – then stepped to the plate with the opportunity to be a hero.
Rowlett is a skilled defensive shortstop with a strong throwing arm, but often this season Vail has used a designated hitter to bat in Rowlett's place. Rowlett was in the lineup in Game 3, though, and with two strikes against him he drove a sharp single up the middle that brought in Lawton with the tying run.
The burly Hickman aggressively rounded third and charging center fielder Parker Boyett appeared to have a good chance to throw him out at the plate, but Boyett lost his footing on the sun-baked artificial turf and Hickman scored the go-ahead run without a play as Academy players spilled out of their first base dugout to celebrate the Bees' first lead.
“I was looking for a fastball late in the count, and I got it,” Rowlett said.
“The fact that Blaine can stay locked in and compete up there, it shows a lot about his character,” Vail said. “Aric was coming and I almost tried to put the brakes on him (as the third base coach), but he almost ran me over. He was going to try to score, no matter what.”
Tomasek, who struck out in his first three at-bats before drawing a seventh-inning walk, commended the Bees' Nos. 4-9 hitters for their production during the game-changing four-run outburst in the sixth.
“Those guys did amazing,” he said. “They really pulled through for us and provided support when we needed it.”
Armed with the Bees' first lead of the day, Tomasek pitched a perfect sixth that featured one strikeout with a fastball and another on a sharp curve.
“The ability for John to be a leader out in center field and to be one of our top hitters driving in runs and being able to step up on the mound and close a ballgame, it just shows how (important) he is,” Vail said.
Academy couldn't capitalize on a leadoff walk and an error in the seventh, which forced Tomasek to pitch a scoreless seventh to seal the Bees' win and send them to the area round.
Scarpinato ripped a leadoff single to right-center, took second on Rhoden's bunt and reached third with two outs on Lowry's groundout. But as it turned out, getting the final out was no problem for Tomasek. He retired Gomez on a routine grounder to Franklin at second, setting off a lively on-field celebration by the resurgent Bees.
That jubilation was in stark contrast to the frustration that Vail and his players experienced for much of the game. Vail came onto the field to argue with umpires on several occasions, including to dispute a fifth-inning call when Lowry's inside pitch hit the protective pad on Tomasek's left elbow but the plate umpire ruled that the ball hit the knob of his bat. Tomasek then struck out looking and tossed his bat away in disgust.
“I'm done arguing,” joked Vail, who said he won only one of his numerous arguments. “I lost count. I stopped counting.”
Said Tomasek: “It was definitely frustrating, but at the time we knew we had to keep our heads level and just play our baseball and we'd be fine. It ended up working out for us.”
The breakthrough series victory continued a strong sports year for Academy, which earned a playoff berth in football, reached the state semifinals in boys basketball, has seen its softball team move into the Region III quarterfinals and on Thursday watched junior Chris Preddie win the triple jump gold medal and the long jump silver medal at the state track and field meet.
“There definitely is a carryover. We had to go out and prove something (in baseball),” said Tomasek, a linebacker in football. “We wanted to make strides and win some playoff games of our own.”
Said Vail: “I think when there's success in programs throughout the school that it carries over from one to the other, and it says a lot about what's going on in our athletic department. You don't want to miss out on it.”
HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL
CLASS 3A BI-DISTRICT PLAYOFFS
Academy 4, Franklin 3
Academy 000 004 0 – 4 5 1
Franklin 011 010 0 – 3 7 3
A: Blaine Rowlett, John Tomasek (5) and Tyler Burnett. F: Cort Lowry, Josh Atomanczyk (6) and Jo. Atomanczyk, Lowry (6). W – Tomasek (2-1). L – Jo. Atomanczyk. 2B – A: Wyatt Gardner; F: Jo. Atomanczyk, Lowry.
Highlights – A: Rowlett six strikeouts in four innings pitched, go-ahead two-run single in sixth; Aric Hickman two-run single in sixth, walk, run; Gardner 2-for-4, run; Darion Franklin 1-for-3, hit by pitch, two stolen bases; Alex Lawton HBP, run; Burnett HBP twice; F: Lowry 3-for-4, RBI double, six strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings pitched; Jo. Atomanczyk 1-for-3, RBI double, walk; Eric Gomez 1-for-3, RBI; Charlie Scarpinato 1-for-2, walk, HBP, run.
Records – Academy 13-16; Franklin 21-8.
Notes – Academy wins Game 3 of Class 3A bi-district playoff series and wins series 2-1; Academy advances to next week's area round and will play No. 20-ranked Whitney (21-8) in a best-of-three series (days/times/location to be determined).