SURVIVAL: Fach blast, Wagaman's arm fuel Wildcats' must-have win; Temple-Cove play-in duel Saturday
LONG GONE: Temple senior first baseman Isaiah Fach follows through on a three-run home run against Copperas Cove pitcher Dekan Radigan during the first inning of the Wildcats' 8-4 win over the Bulldawgs on Tuesday evening at Hallford Field. Fach's second homer this season gave Temple a 3-1 lead on its way to a 5-1 advantage after the opening frame. Temple completed District 12-6A play tied with Cove and Killeen Ellison for third place at 8-6. The Wildcats will play the Bulldawgs again at 2 p.m. Saturday at Salado High School to decide the league's No. 4 seed for the upcoming Class 6A state playoffs. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
For Temple senior baseball players such as Isaiah Fach and Aaron Wagaman, Tuesday evening's District 12-6A finale against Copperas Cove had the potential to be not only their last home game at Hallford Field but also perhaps their final appearance in a Wildcats uniform.
From Fach's powerful first-inning swing to Wagaman's gritty complete-game pitching, Temple's sense of urgency in its win-or-you're-finished battle was readily apparent.
Fach launched a three-run home run to highlight the Wildcats' five-run explosion in the first inning and Wagaman racked up 11 strikeouts while getting in and out of trouble, leading Temple to an 8-4 victory over Copperas Cove that forced another matchup between the Wildcats and Bulldawgs to decide 12-6A's fourth and final berth in the Class 6A state playoffs.
“It felt amazing because it got the momentum flowing,” Fach, Temple's burly first baseman, said about his three-run homer that overtook Cove's 1-0 first-inning lead. “Our bats have been hot these last few games, and to jump out on a good team and kill their momentum felt real good.
“Whenever (Wagaman) gets that lead, he's unstoppable. I saw the fire in his eyes and knew he would run with that lead. And when we get that lead, we're fired up and just feel good. It's a team win, really.”
Although Temple's roller-coaster season could have ended Tuesday, Wagaman said that he and the Wildcats – who lost a 1-0, eight-inning game at Cove on April 6 – felt more excitement and confidence than anxiety and pressure – an important factor as they earned the opportunity to extend their season by at least one more game.
“We all felt good. We've had a good last week of practice. Saturday we came up here to hit and grinded,” said Wagaman (6-4), the Temple College-committed right-hander who struck out seven in the final three innings and contributed two hits at the plate. “It was just so energetic (tonight) . . . we had to contain ourselves a little bit. We were ready to go. In the first inning we jumped out real fast and that helped me out with that cushion.”
Temple (18-11, 8-6) and Cove (17-14, 8-6) finished tied for third place in the district with Killeen Ellison (13-17-2, 8-6), which staved off last-place Killeen Shoemaker for a 5-4 win Tuesday. Because Ellison went 2-0 against Cove and 1-1 against Temple, the Eagles seized 12-6A's No. 3 playoff seed.
Having split their season series 1-1, Temple and Cove now need a third meeting to determine the league's No. 4 seed for postseason competition. The Wildcats and Bulldawgs will clash again at 2 p.m. Saturday at Salado High School.
Temple got off to a 5-1 start in district play – featuring a 2-0 home win over rival Belton that was the Tigers' lone defeat in 14 league games – and was tied for first place. However, the Wildcats of third-year head coach Dallas Robertson dropped their next five games and were 5-6 after an 11-5 loss at Belton on April 17.
Robertson said that afternoon at Tiger Field that he believed Temple was capable of winning its final three games and getting into the playoffs. And after avenging their road loss to Cove, Robertson's resurgent Wildcats will have that opportunity Saturday.
“That was our goal as soon as that Belton game (finished). We set that in stone as what we were going to do, and I'll tell you, the boys worked hard on it every day,” Robertson said. “They believe, and that's what I love about them. They're for real. We've had some ups and downs, but they don't waver. They stay solid.”
Cove would have secured third place by itself with a win at Temple, but the Bulldawgs couldn't overcome their disastrous bottom of the first inning in which the Wildcats sent 10 batters to the plate and produced five runs against senior right-hander Dekan Radigan.
Nonetheless, Cove second-year head coach Bryant Lopez tried his best to keep the defeat in perspective, knowing that his Bulldawgs – unlike Temple – didn't need to win the 12-6A finale to guarantee themselves another game and a shot to advance to the playoffs.
“Essentially this is a playoff series for us. Temple has to win two games and we have to win one, so we're already favorable,” Lopez said after addressing his squad in his postgame speech. “I told them, 'This is good practice, because in the playoffs, we've got to be mentally tough enough to get punched in the mouth in the first game (and come back from it).'
“That's the message, is to be able to get back up and respond. We're pretty mentally tough when it comes to flushing it after tough losses. Ellison was an extremely tough loss at home (6-4 on April 17) when we lost it (by allowing three runs) in the last inning, and we came back with two huge wins. We're upset about (losing at Temple), but we're always trying to express the good things that we've done and that we're still playing.”
SENIOR MOMENT: With Temple needing to beat Copperas Cove on Tuesday night at Hallford Field to extend its season, senior right-hander Aaron Wagaman pitched a complete game with 11 strikeouts and contributed two singles to help the Wildcats earn an 8-4 victory. Wagaman (6-4) avenged Temple's 1-0, eight-inning loss at Cove three weeks ago and pushed coach Dallas Robertson's Wildcats into a play-in game against the Bulldawgs at 2 p.m. Saturday at Salado High School for District 12-6A's fourth and final berth in the Class 6A playoffs. Wagaman, a Temple College commitment, had seven strikeouts in the final three innings. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
The pitching matchup of experienced workhorses Wagaman and Radigan was the same as it was three weeks earlier, when Wagaman compiled 12 strikeouts and permitted only four singles before he hit the leadoff batter in the eighth and had to be taken out after reaching his pitch-count limit. Jace Johnson's ensuing sacrifice fly gave Cove a 1-0 home win on a night when Wagaman, who absorbed the tough-luck loss, supplied Temple's only hit against Radigan and senior reliever Russel Cochran.
Facing the Bulldawgs for the second time and in a crucial situation, Wagaman wasn't as dominant as he was resilient. Cove used good fortune to grab an early lead in the rematch. With one out in the top of the first, Wagaman struck out Antonio Espinoza with a curveball in the dirt, but the ball bounced away from senior catcher Bryan Williams and Espinoza reached first base without a throw.
Texas Tech-committed junior shortstop Travis Sanders ripped a hit-and-run single to right field, moving Espinoza to third, then Cochran poked a hard bunt at first baseman Fach, who tagged out Cochran as Espinoza scored for a 1-0 Bulldawgs advantage.
The visitors' lead did not last long.
Williams drew a one-out walk in Temple's first inning against Radigan, then Wagaman's pop fly to shallow right was dropped by second baseman Espinoza for an error. That set the stage for the 6-foot-2, 240-pound Fach, an Angelina College commitment. A strong wind was blowing out to left, but Fach didn't really seem to need it as he hammered Radigan's 1-0 offering well over the wall for a three-run homer that gave the Wildcats the lead to stay at 3-1.
“It was a fastball inside, and it felt good to get my hands inside of it and just crush it,” Fach said about his second homer this season and the sixth in his four-year varsity career, after which he was swarmed by his celebrating teammates after crossing home plate.
POWER SOURCE: Temple senior first baseman Isaiah Fach delivered the biggest hit in the Wildcats' 8-4 win over Copperas Cove in Tuesday night's District 12-6A finale at Hallford Field. With Temple trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the first inning, the Angelina College commitment crushed a Dekan Radigan fastball well over the wall in left field for a three-run home run, giving the Wildcats the lead for good. It was Fach's second homer this season and the sixth in his four-year varsity career. Fach and Temple will advance to the Class 6A state playoffs if they defeat Cove in a play-in game for the No. 4 seed at 2 p.m. Saturday at Salado High School. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
“That was a big weight lifted off my shoulders,” Wagaman said of Fach's long-range blast giving the pitcher some desperately needed early run support. “We've been working on (hitting). To see it come to success on the field, it's a great feeling.”
Temple wasn't done in the first, though. With two outs, Issac Ramos singled to left and Chance Guillen walked. Matt McDonald struck out but reached on a wild pitch, loading the bases for No. 9 batter Kobe Smith. The charging Sanders fielded Smith's slowly hit chopper behind the mound but threw wildly past first base, a crucial error that allowed Ramos and Guillen to score as the Wildcats expanded their lead to 5-1.
“Our big thing is we always try to get one run per inning, but we also want to win the inning. You don't want to stop at one,” Robertson said. “That was big. Isaiah's got that potential and he's swinging the bat well right now.”
Temple threatened to have another big inning in the second, loading the bases with no outs on singles by Williams and Wagaman and Fach's walk. But Naeten Mitchell's grounder produced a force out at home, then Sanders snagged a Ramos liner and turned it into an easy double play as Radigan escaped unscathed.
Cove made its move against Wagaman in the fourth, sparked by singles from Cochran and Radigan to begin the inning. A run-scoring groundout by Caden Harris made it 5-2, then with two outs No. 9 batter John Garcia-Leon chopped a single into center that drove in Blaine Butler for a 5-3 game. But when Manuel Chaco tried to score from second on the hit, senior center fielder Dylan Hinkle charged it and fired a low, skipping throw to home plate, where Williams tagged out the sliding Chaco to preserve the two-run lead.
“That was big momentum,” Robertson said about the throw from the tall, rangy Hinkle, who doesn't bat in Temple's lineup but has provided stellar outfield defense. “Dylan has played tremendous outfield this season. He did it last year before COVID. He's got length and he's very fast. He's great on defense and has saved many games. Him and Mikal Harrison-Pilot, Johnny Donoso and now Kobe Smith, their outfield play has been great.”
Sparked by that defensive gem, Temple built on its lead in the fourth. Williams and Wagaman ripped consecutive one-out singles and Fach walked to load the bases. Neither Radigan nor catcher Cochran was able to make a play on Mitchell's bunt for an RBI single and a 6-3 game. Radigan had a shot to avoid further damage, but with two outs he issued bases-loaded walks to Guillen and McDonald to extend the Wildcats' lead to 8-3.
“He had trouble locating his fastball, so he had to go back to his breaking ball,” Lopez said about Radigan, who allowed seven hits, struck out four batters and walked six in 3 2/3 innings. “It's not typical of him.”
Cochran earned the win in relief of Radigan in Cove's 1-0, extra-inning home win over Temple, and the strapping senior righty – Lopez said Cochran will pitch against the Wildcats in Saturday's play-in showdown – kept the Bulldawgs within striking distance in the rematch by striking out five in 2 1/3 hitless relief innings.
Armed with the five-run lead, Wagaman struck out Johnson, Espinoza and Cochran with fastballs in the fifth, then struck out Radigan and Chaco in a scoreless sixth.
“I knew their swings, and our coaches scouted them good,” Wagaman said. “We had a real good gameplan, and I always feel more comfortable when we have a good gameplan for each swing.”
Cove made a spirited comeback attempt in the seventh. Garcia-Leon beat out an infield hit and advanced on a wild pitch before Wagaman struck out Johnson. Espinoza walked, then Sanders squibbed a grounder to Fach, whose short throw was dropped near first by the covering Wagaman for an error. Cochran then ripped an RBI single to center for an 8-4 game, prompting a mound visit from Robertson with Wagaman's pitch count at 101 and the bases loaded with one out.
“We've had trouble in the late innings lately. I didn't want to go out there early in that inning to make Wagaman freak out,” Robertson said. “(But) now I had to go talk to him.”
Whatever the head coach told Wagaman, it had the intended effect. Wagaman struck out Radigan with a fastball, then retired Butler on a soft popup to shortstop Ramos to complete Temple's season-extending victory.
“It wasn't too tough. I just had to find the strike zone and pound it,” Wagaman said. “I lost it in the seventh but found it and got us out of that.”
Wagaman, also a four-season starting kicker for Temple's football team, said Robertson's serious-but-positive approach has encouraged the Wildcats to relax and play their best baseball.
“He's been on us, but he's really big on us having fun because we play way better when we're loose,” Wagaman said. “Even in a big game, we were way more loose tonight. We knew we had to get it done, but we were having fun the entire time.”
The result is that Temple has at least one more game to play this season, with established senior right-hander Williams aiming to follow Wagaman's clutch performance with one of his own against Cove this Saturday afternoon.
“We're just going to mentally prepare and wish for the best,” Fach said. “With these guys, once we catch fire, it's real hard to stop us.”
HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL
Temple 8, Copperas Cove 4
Cove 100 200 1 – 4 8 2
Temple 500 300 X – 8 7 1
CC: Dekan Radigan, Russel Cochran (4) and Cochran, Travis Sanders (4). T: Aaron Wagaman and Bryan Williams. W – Wagaman (6-4). L – Radigan. HR – T: Isaiah Fach (2).
Highlights – T: Wagaman 11 strikeouts, 2-for-4; Fach three-run home run in first inning, two walks, two runs; Williams 2-for-3, walk, two runs; Chance Guillen two walks, run batted in, run; Naeten Mitchell, Matt McDonald one RBI each; Aiden Martinez two runs; CC: Cochran five strikeouts, no hits allowed in 2 1/3 innings, 2-for-3, two RBI, run; John Garcia-Leon 2-for-3, RBI, run; Sanders 2-for-4; Caden Harris 1-for-3, RBI, run; Radigan four strikeouts in 3 2/3 innings.
Records – Temple 18-11 overall, 8-6 in District 12-6A; Copperas Cove 17-14, 8-6.
Notes – Temple, Copperas Cove and Killeen Ellison finish tied for third place in 12-6A at 8-6; Ellison (1-1 vs. Temple, 2-0 vs. Cove) qualifies for Class 6A state playoffs as No. 3 seed; Temple and Cove (1-1 vs. each other) will meet in a play-in game for the district's No. 4 playoff seed at 2 p.m. Saturday at Salado High School.