REVERSAL OF FORTUNE: Temple leads 4-0 early, but breakdowns help Cove win 5-4 for final playoff spot
EARLY OFFENSE: Temple senior Aaron Wagaman rips a run-scoring single past Copperas Cove pitcher Russel Cochran during the Wildcats' four-run top of the first inning in the District 12-6A fourth-place tiebreaker game Saturday afternoon at Salado High School. Cochran and Travis Sanders shut out Temple in the final six innings and Cove scored five runs to defeat the Wildcats 5-4, sending the Bulldawgs (18-14) to the Class 6A state playoffs. Coach Dallas Robertson's Temple team, which beat visiting Cove 8-4 in Tuesday's regular-season finale, finished the season with an 18-12 record. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
SALADO – Temple head baseball coach Dallas Robertson recently discussed his goals for the Wildcats in each game. One is to score at least one run in every inning, and another is to win as many innings as possible. His reasoning is sound: If Temple achieves those things more often than not, it will win a lot of games.
So when the Wildcats exploded for four runs in the top of the first inning in Saturday's District 12-6A fourth-place tiebreaker game and senior pitcher Bryan Williams then limited Copperas Cove to one run in the bottom half, Robertson had to feel good about his team's prospects for advancing to the Class 6A state playoffs.
But on a cloudy afternoon that eventually left both teams soaked by persistent rain at Salado High School, Temple never scored again and therefore didn't win any more innings, and a victory and the accompanying postseason berth slipped out of the Wildcats' grasp in painful fashion.
Copperas Cove pitchers Russel Cochran and Travis Sanders shut out Temple in the final six innings, and several vital mistakes by the Wildcats' defense aided the Bulldawgs' big comeback as resilient Cove scored one run in each of its final two innings at bat and rallied for a 5-4 win that stopped Temple's season.
“The game of baseball, man. I mean, we had the adrenaline and were riding high (in the first) and should have tacked on some more in that inning,” Robertson said as rain poured down after he addressed his emotional players down the right field line. “But we made a mistake on the bases. Even with that momentum right there, you make a mistake and (hit into) a double play, the momentum does change even though you have those runs. We just didn't tack on runs every inning like we're supposed to. That's our goal, and we just didn't do it.
“That's what's disappointing about this, is you've got to get away from your opponent all the time, because they're trying to win, too. They're trying to get in the playoffs, so they're not going to lay down after a four-run inning. We just didn't get away from them. That's kind of what we've been doing all year long. If we have a big inning, we don't come back and keep adding. So that's a focus going into next season, is we've got to keep getting away from those guys.”
After falling to 5-6 in district with an 11-5 loss at rival Belton on April 17, Temple (18-12) had to win its final three games just to tie Cove (18-14) for fourth place in 12-6A at 8-6. The last of those league victories came Tuesday night against the Bulldawgs at Hallford Field, where the Wildcats rode a five-run first inning to an 8-4 win that forced the play-in duel.
Cove second-year head coach Bryant Lopez didn't overreact to that defeat, both because it wasn't a game the Bulldawgs absolutely had to win – whereas Temple did – and also because his squad outscored the Wildcats 4-3 in the final six innings to least get back into contention and make them sweat a little bit.
In the game that Cove did have to win, it found a way to overcome another bad first inning and prevail.
“We had a heartbreak loss against (third-place Killeen) Ellison in a game we could have won and we didn't, and that put us in this situation. We would've had third all by ourselves, but now we found ourselves in a do-or-die game to get in, and I'm just proud of these guys for battling,” said Lopez, whose club edged Temple 1-0 in eight innings on April 6. “We were hungry.”
Cove's comeback against Temple in the rubber match was a slow burn: one run in the first inning, two in the second, one in the fifth on a balk by Williams to create a 4-4 tie and finally one in the sixth on a two-out throwing error by Williams to give the Bulldawgs their first and only lead, which held up.
Cove junior standout Sanders hit two doubles, scored the tying run in the sixth and pitched the final two innings with three strikeouts in relief of senior Cochran to earn the win.
“They were extremely tough,” Lopez said of Cochran and Sanders, who also were the Bulldawgs' two catchers in the game. “That's our main focus this year, being mentally tough and getting through things. It's easy for a pitcher to lose trust in your defense, because we did throw it around, kick it around and miss a ball here or there. It's very easy to point fingers at each other, but we came together and we put it together.”
WINNING IN THE RAIN: Copperas Cove junior Travis Sanders played an important role as the Bulldawgs came back to defeat Temple 5-4 in the District 12-6A fourth-place tiebreaker game on a rainy Saturday afternoon at Salado High School. The Texas Tech verbal commitment hit two doubles, scored the tying run on a fifth-inning balk and caught the first five innings before closing out the Bulldawgs' playoff-clinching win by pitching two scoreless innings with three strikeouts. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Sanders, a Texas Tech verbal commitment, said the key factor for the Bulldawgs was believing that they could overcome another big early deficit against Temple by chipping away each inning.
“They punched us in the mouth, for sure. Last time we played them they got up on us also and put up five runs in the first inning. (Today after the top of the first) you could see our attitudes going down,” Sanders said. “But I kept telling our team, 'It's only the first inning. We've still got six more at-bats. If we can scratch across one run every inning, we can come back. We've just got to win inning by inning.' We just kept fighting and kept the energy up.”
As the No. 4 seed in 12-6A, Cove will play 11-6A top seed Mansfield in the bi-district playoff round next week. Lopez said he didn't know yet whether the Bulldawgs want to play a best-of-three series or a single game.
In its four-run first inning, Temple had three hits and its first four batters – junior Johnny Donoso and seniors Williams, Aaron Wagaman and Isaiah Fach – reached base and scored. In the final six frames, however, the Wildcats didn't have a runner advance past second base against right-handers Cochran and Sanders (3-0). All eight Temple hits were singles, while Cove tallied two triples and two doubles.
“We needed to figure out a way to keep balls on the ground. We had an excellent gameplan of just keeping it down on the (artificial) turf, but we hit a lot of fly balls,” said Williams, who singled and stole second base with one out in the seventh before Sanders retired Wagaman and Fach to seal the Bulldawgs' one-run win. “Cove is a great team and they're always going to fight, no matter what. Adversity hit us with the rain, and we just didn't figure it out at the end.”
Four days after Fach's three-run home run in the first inning set the tone for Temple's must-have home victory over Cove, the Wildcats jumped out to another huge lead over the Bulldawgs in the opening frame.
Leadoff batter Donoso hit an infield single, then Williams put down a sacrifice bunt and Cochran's throw sailed past first baseman Blaine Butler and into foul territory, allowing Donoso to advance to third and Williams to second. Wagaman, who pitched an 11-strikeout complete game Tuesday against Cove, then ripped a run-scoring single to center for a 1-0 Temple lead before Fach drew a walk.
The courtesy runner for catcher Wagaman was Aiden Martinez, who should have been out on his stolen base attempt but was safe when shortstop Dekan Radigan dropped the accurate throw from catcher Sanders, allowing Williams to score for a 2-0 advantage.
The Wildcats' lead grew to 3-0 when sophomore third baseman Naeten Mitchell served a soft RBI single over the first baseman's head, scoring Martinez. Another dropped throw by Radigan on Mitchell's steal of second allowed Fach to scamper home from third for a 4-0 game.
It could have been an even more productive first inning for Temple. Trying to steal third, Mitchell was thrown out by Sanders for the first out. Cochran then hit Issac Ramos in the helmet with a pitch and walked Matthew McDonald, but Chance Guillen lined out to center fielder John Garcia-Leon and Ramos couldn't get back to second in time as Cove turned a double play to finally get Cochran out of his 35-pitch first inning.
Armed with a four-run lead before throwing his first pitch, right-hander Williams (7-5) allowed a leadoff single to Jace Johnson, who was bunted to second by Butler, raced to third after Sanders flew out to right and scored on a wild pitch to make it 4-1 before Williams struck out Cochran for the first of three times.
HIGH HEAT: Temple senior pitcher Bryan Williams strikes out Copperas Cove's Russel Cochran with a high fastball during the third inning of Saturday afternoon's District 12-6A fourth-place tiebreaker game at Salado High School. Temple College commitment Williams struck Cochran out three times and threw a complete game with five strikeouts, but starting pitcher Cochran overcame a rough first inning and head coach Bryant Lopez's Bulldawgs came back to defeat the Wildcats 5-4 and earn the league's final playoff berth. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
After Cochran settled down to pitch a scoreless second, the Bulldawgs cut the Wildcats' lead from three runs to one in the second. Gabriel Chapman flared a leadoff single, advanced on a Caden Harris bunt and took third on Antonio Espinoza's single to center. That set the stage for Temple's first defensive miscue. Radigan rocked a rising line drive that right fielder Donoso came in on before the ball kept carrying over his head, rolling to the fence for a two-run triple that sliced the Wildcats' lead to 4-3.
When Garcia-Leon squared to bunt but didn't, Radigan was trapped between third and home and tagged out in a rundown before Williams retired Garcia-Leon on a groundout.
Another Temple threat came up empty in the third. Wagaman led off with walk and courtesy runner Martinez took second when first baseman Butler dropped Cochran's pickoff throw, but Cochran then retired Fach, Mitchell and Ramos to strand the runner at second.
Williams had to dig deep to keep Cove from scoring in the third. Left fielder Kobe Smith stumbled and dropped Butler's one-out fly ball, then Sanders ripped a double inside the bag at third to give the Bulldawgs two runners in scoring position. However, Williams escaped the jam by striking out Cochran with a high fastball and getting Chapman to pop up.
HARD HIT: Copperas Cove junior Travis Sanders follows through on his third-inning double past third base against Temple senior pitcher Bryan Williams during the District 12-6A fourth-place tiebreaker game at Salado High School. Sanders hit another double in the fifth and scored the tying run when Williams was called for a balk. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Guillen and Donoso hit singles in the fourth but Temple couldn't push across a run, with Cochran getting Williams on a routine flyout to left and then retiring the side in order in the fifth as the heavy rainfall rolled in.
Cove didn't have much going against Williams in the fifth, but that changed quickly.
With two outs, Sanders drilled a double down the line in left and took an aggressive turn around second. Instead of shortstop Ramos directing his relay throw to third to make sure the speedy Sanders had to hold with a double, he threw behind Sanders, who initially looked to be trying to scramble back to second. But as soon as the throw went behind him, Sanders scurried to third and beat the late throw.
“It was a little slippery and the ball was wet, so I was running really aggressively on the throw from the outfield,” Sanders explained. “My key was that if I get more (off of second), he's going to try to throw behind me and I just keep going and get that base.”
Added Lopez: “It wasn't an error on Travis' part. That's what he wanted them to do. I've seen him do that. He knows what he's doing. That's something I can't tell him to do.”
That turned out to be a vital extra base to get. With Cochran batting and Sanders darting off of third, the umpire at third base called Williams for a balk that sent Sanders home for a 4-4 deadlock.
“I'm pretty good on the bases and I knew (Williams) had me in his head. I've stolen home a couple of times this year,” Sanders said. “He saw me out of the corner of his eye. His first baseman (Fach) told him to step off, and he flinched and we got that big run and tied it up.”
Said Williams: “It took me my surprise because my first instinct was looking up, so I don't know if my shoulder moved. I saw (Sanders) after my first baseman told me to step off. It took me surprise a little.”
With Cochran almost at the limit of 110 pitches, Sanders moved from behind the plate to on the mound to begin the sixth. He allowed McDonald's one-out single but then struck out Guillen and Smith.
With one out in Cove's sixth, Harris hit a sinking liner that diving left fielder Smith couldn't catch, allowing Harris to race around for a triple. Espinoza then popped up a bunt that Williams easily caught, but when Temple's pitcher tried to fire to third for a potential double play, his rushed throw sailed well over the fielder's head into left field and Harris trotted home for the Bulldawgs' first lead, 5-4.
Williams said that although moisture on the ball might have contributed to his errant throw, he also couldn't throw the ball as hard as he wanted to third because the nearest fielder still was on his way to cover the bag.
“A little bit of it was the ball,” he said, “but I just didn't see anybody at third.”
Said Robertson: “When I saw that and saw the angle that Bryan's body was in, I saw it coming. In a big game, you can't do that.”
After Williams got out of the sixth, Temple needed to score at least one run against Sanders in the seventh to extend its season. Williams poked a one-out single to right and stole second, then was replaced by Martinez after banging his hip into the base while sliding.
The Wildcats had the tying run in scoring position with one out, but Sanders struck out Wagaman with a fastball and Fach flew out to shortstop to secure Cove's comeback win, setting off a hearty celebration by the Bulldawgs on the rain-soaked turf in center field.
“I'm primarily a shortstop, but I just got in there and threw strikes and trusted my teammates and we got the win,” Sanders said. “We fought. I'm excited. We might not have the best talent on our team and we've got a lot of young guys, but we surely fight every day and we've worked hard for this spot.”
JOHNNY ON THE SPOT: Temple junior right fielder Johnny Donoso connects for a second-inning single to right field against Copperas Cove pitcher Russel Cochran during Saturday's District 12-6A fourth-place tiebreaker game at Salado High School. Leadoff batter Donoso collected a team-best three hits and scored a run for the Wildcats, but the Bulldawgs rallied to prevail 5-4 and grab the district's final berth in the Class 6A state playoffs. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
In Temple's somber postgame dugout, Robertson expressed pride in the late-season charge that gave the Wildcats a one-game opportunity to reach the playoffs, even though smiles were absent after an early four-run lead turned into an agonizing one-run loss.
“It's very disappointing, because at the beginning of the year our goal was to get into the playoffs,” said Robertson, whose team dealt seventh-ranked Belton its only district loss. “Hey, we could have folded. But these guys, they wanted it and this was a goal for them. They have pushed for it every day and worked for it. I didn't see any bad body language. I'm proud of that. They're fighters and we had great leadership from our seniors.”
A workhorse pitcher and catcher through his senior season, Williams certainly wanted a better outcome but nonetheless said the cohesive Wildcats gave it their best shot.
“I'm beyond proud for my team,” said Williams, who like Wagaman has committed to play for Temple College. “We've had a real up-and-down season, but we figured out ways to compete and ways to execute. This is one of the best teams I played with my whole four years.”
HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL
FOURTH-PLACE TIEBREAKER GAME
Copperas Cove 5, Temple 4
Temple 400 000 0 – 4 8 2
Cove 120 011 X – 5 7 4
T: Bryan Williams and Aaron Wagaman. CC: Russel Cochran, Travis Sanders (6) and Sanders, Cochran (6). W – Sanders (3-0). L – Williams (7-5). 3B – CC: Dekan Radigan, Caden Harris. 2B – CC: Sanders 2.
Highlights – T: Williams five strikeouts, 1-for-3, run; Johnny Donoso 3-for-4, run; Wagaman 1-for-3, run batted in, walk; Naeten Mitchell 1-for-3, RBI; Matthew McDonald 1-for-2, walk; Chance Guillen 1-for-3; Isaiah Fach walk, run; CC: Sanders 2-for-3, run, three strikeouts in two innings pitched; Radigan 1-for-2, two-run triple, walk; Antonio Espinoza 1-for-2, hit by pitch, run; Gabriel Chapman 1-for-3, run; Harris 1-for-3, run; Jace Johnson 1-for-3, run.
Records – Temple 18-12; Copperas Cove 18-14.
Notes – Copperas Cove wins tie-breaker game for District 12-6A's fourth playoff seed; Cove will play 11-6A champion Mansfield in the bi-district round of the Class 6A state playoffs.