SHUTDOWN MODE: Johnson pitches gem in Belton playoff opener as No. 7 Tigers rip past Duncanville 8-0
FROM THE HARDWOOD TO THE DIAMOND: After helping lead Belton's basketball team to a Class 6A playoff berth this past season, senior shortstop Ben Jones (left) and junior pitcher TJ Johnson played key roles Friday night as the Tigers' baseball squad beat Duncanville 8-0 at Tiger Field in the opening game of a bi-district playoff series. East Texas Baptist commitment Jones ignited Belton's five-run third inning with an RBI double and also made several stellar defensive plays in support of the 6-foot-6 Johnson, who pitched 6 2/3 effective innings with six strikeouts for head coach Mark Krueger's No. 7-ranked Tigers (24-3-1). The best-of-three series resumes at 1 p.m. Saturday in Duncanville. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
BELTON – Strong pitching, sharp defense and hitting in key situations. That formula worked very well for Belton's baseball team throughout the regular season, so there was no reason for the seventh-ranked Tigers to change it when they moved into the Class 6A state playoffs Friday evening at Tiger Field.
Junior TJ Johnson pitched 6 2/3 effective innings and benefited from stellar defense behind him, and Belton broke through against stubborn Duncanville for a five-run third inning before tacking on three runs in the sixth as the Tigers charged to an 8-0 victory in the opening game of a bi-district series.
“Duncanville's a scrappy team, they're well-coached and they play good defense, so we knew we were going to be in a fight with them,” Belton fifth-year head coach Mark Krueger said after his District 12-6A championship squad extended its winning streak to 11 games and improved to 24-3-1. “To me, we're very similar to them. We're going to play good defense. We were fortunate tonight to get the big hits, and they didn't.”
The win was Belton's first postseason victory since 2018, when the Tigers defeated Cedar Hill two games to one in a 6A bi-district series before Flower Mound Marcus swept them in the area round. Belton lost to Tyler Lee in a one-game bi-district playoff in 2019, and the COVID-19 pandemic stopped the Tigers' promising 2020 season in March.
“It's awesome, especially with this group of guys. I mean, I love these guys,” said Belton senior shortstop Ben Jones, a three-year starter who started the Tigers' scoring against Duncanville with an RBI double in the third inning. “Seeing this kid (Johnson) pitch amazing on the mound, coming straight from basketball with him, it's awesome. I love it.”
Said Krueger: “Just to get a win in the playoffs is a lot different than getting a win in district. It's a credit to our guys. It's awesome for those guys to experience that.”
Game 2 is at 1 p.m. Saturday at Duncanville, where head coach Scott Fahey's Panthers (16-14) – who beat DeSoto 10-0 last Friday to earn 11-6A's fourth seed – will try to force a third game that would begin 30 minutes after Game 2 concludes.
The Belton-Duncanville winner will advance to next week's area round to play the winner of the best-of-three series between 9-6A runner-up Garland Sachse (16-12-1) and 10-6A third seed Tyler Legacy (20-9). Sachse won Friday's series opener 4-3.
MOUND PRESENCE: Belton junior right-hander TJ Johnson delivers a pitch to Duncanville batter Jonathan Alvarado during the second inning of the seventh-ranked Tigers' 8-0 win over the Panthers on Friday evening at Tiger Field in the opening game of a best-of-three Class 6A bi-district playoff series. The 6-foot-6 Johnson (3-1) pitched 6 2/3 innings and had six strikeouts, helping Belton (24-3-1) earn its first postseason victory since 2018. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
As for choosing Belton's starting pitcher for Game 1, Krueger could have selected senior right-handed ace Brady Shadrick (10-0) or senior lefty Jason Bonnett (7-1), who threw a five-inning perfect game against Killeen on April 27. Instead, Krueger opted to go with 6-foot-6 righty Johnson, a high-scoring, all-region basketball player who along with Jones helped lead this season's Tigers to a playoff berth on the hardwood.
That decision certainly worked out. Johnson (3-1) racked up six strikeouts, allowed four hits and pitched his way in and out of trouble as he lasted 6 2/3 innings before reaching the 110-pitch limit. Shadrick came in from right field, switching spots with Johnson, with two outs in the seventh and struck out Cohl McCoy looking with an outside-corner fastball to seal Belton's shutout win.
“We were going with TJ since Tuesday. We made that decision, and wow, he came out and had a great performance,” Krueger said. “We've got three really great pitchers, and we've got some some guys who come in relief for us and do just as well. We're very fortunate this year with our pitching.”
Krueger said he was undecided about whether Shadrick or Bonnett will be Belton's starting pitcher when the series resumes Saturday afternoon in Duncanville.
Johnson pitched Belton to a 7-1 road win against third-place Killeen Ellison on April 20, and he rose to the occasion as the Tigers' starting pitcher in their playoff opener.
“Mainly I was hitting the outside corner a lot with my fastball. I was relying a lot on that pitch right there, and then when I got my curveball working, too, it all just came together,” Johnson said. “Pitching is almost like a little game. You've got to figure out what the umpire's calling and what he doesn't like to call, then just hit your spots.”
Johnson had to navigate through some difficulties during Duncanville's first inning. McCoy lined a one-out single down the line in left field and took second base when left fielder Aaron Bain bobbled the ball in foul ground. Kevin Chavez walked, then after a flyout the runners pulled off a double steal to move into scoring position with two outs. A walk to Juan Castorena loaded the bases, but Johnson responded by striking out Jose Zaragoza looking with a big-breaking curve on the outside corner at the knees.
Belton threatened to seize an early lead in its first at-bat against right-hander Ramiro Montiel, as a one-out walk to Jones and Caleb Alexander's single were followed by a fielder's-choice grounder by Mary Hardin-Baylor commitment Cooper Babcock, leaving runners at the corners with two outs. However, Montiel retired Jacob Estrada on a routine grounder to second to keep the game scoreless.
Johnson then settled into a rhythm, retiring the Panthers' next six hitters, two of them on strikeouts. Meanwhile, curveball pitcher Montiel got three quick groundouts in the second but ran into big trouble in Belton's third.
FINDING THE BARREL: Belton senior shortstop Ben Jones connects with a pitch from Duncanville starter Ramiro Montiel for a run-scoring double to left-center field during the third inning of the Tigers' 8-0 win Friday evening at Tiger Field in the opening game of a Class 6A bi-district playoff series. Junior left fielder Aaron Bain scored on the play for a 1-0 lead and Belton eventually produced five runs in the third. The seventh-ranked Tigers extended their winning streak to 11 games and earned their first playoff victory since 2018. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
No. 9 batter Bain flared a leadoff single into shallow left before Scott Gurnett walked. That set the stage for Jones, who pummeled a run-scoring double off the fence in left-center to give the Tigers a 1-0 lead. After Alexander was hit by a pitch to load the bases with no outs, Babcock poked a grounder that was fielded by first baseman Zaragoza, whose rushed throw to home plate sailed wide of catcher Castorena, with East Texas Baptist commitments Gurnett and Jones scoring on the play to make it 3-0.
Things then went from bad to worse for Duncanville. Estrada ripped a single to right to drive in Alexander, and the ball skidded past charging right fielder Dario Munoz, also allowing Mason Ramm – Babcock's courtesy runner – to score as Belton grabbed a commanding 5-0 advantage.
“That was huge,” Krueger said. “Any time you can get five runs in a playoff game in one inning, that's huge.”
Johnson hit a batter and walked one with one out in the fourth, but with men on the corners with two outs he speared Munoz's comebacker and got the out at first to keep the Panthers off the scoreboard.
Duncanville appeared to finally score in the fifth. McCoy hit a two-out single and came around to cross home plate when Chavez shot a double down the right field line. But Belton appealed the play and the third base umpire ruled that McCoy never touched third, negating the Panthers' would-be first run and getting Johnson and the Tigers out of the inning unscathed.
Belton had runners at second and third with no outs in the fifth, but Samuel Lozano came in from center field to pitch and the lefty recorded three consecutive groundouts to prevent the Tigers from adding to their lead.
“Their pitching was a lot better than I expected,” Jones said about Duncanville's staff. “We still won 8-0 and did pretty well at the plate, but honestly that pitching was not bad at all.”
Montiel hit a leadoff single in Duncanville's sixth, but Johnson struck out Castorena and Zaragoza with fastballs. He then struck out Jonathan Alvarado swinging with a low curve that bounced, but catcher Babcock's throw to first to try to complete the strikeout was low and skipped past first baseman Alexander for an error. The Panthers briefly had a shot to get back into contention, but Munoz hit a routine flyout to right to keep it a 5-0 game.
Belton didn't necessarily need to score any more runs in the sixth, but the Tigers did anyway in their final at-bat. Ramm led off by driving a pinch-hit double to right-center before Johnson walked. Lozano fielded Bain's grounder and threw to third for the forceout, but the third baseman's throw across the diamond bounced away for an error.
Lozano then began his pitching motion before Gurnett appeared to be ready in the box, but it didn't seem to bother the Tigers' sturdy leadoff batter and second baseman. Gurnett blasted a two-run doible to the gap in right-center, driving in courtesy runner Ryan Blair and Bain for a 7-0 lead. Alexander completed the scoring by powering an RBI single off the wall in right-center, scoring Gurnett to make it 8-0.
With Johnson seeking a shutout in the seventh, Belton junior third baseman Josh Westbrook made a nifty sliding maneuver to retire Michael Montemayor on a groundout, then shortstop Jones darted deep into the hole to field Juan Salazar's grounder on the run and made an athletic, accurate throw to get the out, one of several impressive defensive plays he provided.
“We made some great plays,” Krueger said. “Ben's a three-year starter for us, and having that experience as a sophomore and junior, he makes things look a lot easier than they really are.”
Added Johnson, who also got a leaping catch from right fielder Shadrick in the first and a diving, backhanded stop and strong throw from Gurnett in the fourth: “When you have defensive players making good plays – great plays – you couldn't ask for more as a pitcher. To know that even if they put the ball in play our guys are going to make a play on it, it makes you so much more comfortable on the mound.”
PLAY BALL The baseball teams from Belton (right) and Duncanville and the umpires stand for the national anthem at Tiger Field prior to Friday evening's opening game of a Class 6A bi-district playoff series. The No. 7-ranked Tigers (24-3-1), champions of District 12-6A, lead the best-of-three series after their 8-0 win. Duncanville (16-14) will host Game 2 at 1 p.m. Saturday. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Johnson reached his pitch limit during Salazar's at-bat (he threw 111 pitches overall), so he jogged out to right field – his usual defensive position – to hearty applause from the lively crowd as Krueger summoned Shadrick to the mound. McCoy had two of the Panthers' four hits, but he stared at Shadrick's outside-corner fastball for the strikeout that wrapped up Belton's shutout win and its first playoff victory in three years.
On Saturday afternoon in Duncanville, the surging Tigers will seek to sweep their way into the second round.
“It's just another game,” Jones about his approach for Game 2. “We played great tonight, and all we have to do is keep the momentum going back there. It's cool that we won, but we can't say we just won the series, because they can do something, that's for sure.”
HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL
CLASS 6A BI-DISTRICT PLAYOFFS
No. 7 Belton 8, Duncanville 0
D'ville 000 000 0 – 0 4 3
Belton 005 003 X – 8 8 2
D: Ramiro Montiel, Daylan Session (4), Samuel Lozano (5), Marcus Chavez (6) and Juan Castorena. B: TJ Johnson, Brady Shadrick (7) and Cooper Babcock. W – Johnson (3-1). L – Montiel. 2B – D: Kevin Chavez; B: Ben Jones, Mason Ramm, Scott Gurnett.
Highlights – D: Cohl McCoy 2-for-4; K. Chavez double, walk; Montiel 1-for-3; Castorena walk, hit by pitch; B: Johnson six strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings; Jones 2-for-3, run-scoring double in third, walk, run; Caleb Alexander 2-for-2, RBI, hit by pitch, walk, run; Gurnett 1-for-3, two-run double in sixth, walk, two runs; Aaron Bain 1-for-3, two runs; Jacob Estrada RBI single; Babcock RBI; Ramm 1-for-1, run.
Records – Duncanville 16-14; Belton 24-3-1.
Notes – Belton wins Game 1 of best-of-three Class 6A bi-district playoff series; first playoff win for Belton since 2018 bi-district round vs. Cedar Hill; Game 2 is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at Duncanville High School; if necessary, Game 3 will be played 30 minutes after Game 2 concludes; series winner will play the winner of the Garland Sachse vs. Tyler Legacy series in next week's area round.