By Tony Adams, Sports Editor
The view of a season can change with one pitch. You can throw a boatload of “shoulda, coulda, wouldas” in with the situation. The situation is the penultimate scenario: leading 2-1, bottom of the seventh, starting pitcher having a great start and you go to your ace to close the ballgame and the series.
We have seen it before in Major League Baseball. We’ve seen it work and sometimes. not work out.
For the Belton Tigers on Saturday afternoon at Grand Prairie’s QuikTrip Park, the decision folded up on them and ended the season.
With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Irving Nimitz designated hitter Andrew Torres single up the middle scored Josh Ragan, giving the Vikings a 3-2 win over the Tigers to clinch a two games to win the Class 6A Region 2 Area playoff series over Belton.
The loss ended Belton’s season at 21-9, just one day after their 19-game winning streak was ended close to 1 a.m. on Saturday morning.
The first game of the series was played at Georgetown East View’s beautiful Patriots Park. It featured two great pitching talents, with Tanner Frick of Belton and Braden Williams of Nimitz.
The Vikings tried to draw first blood in the first inning, as with one out Saul Garcia and Ragan singled and Torres walked to load the bases. Frick struck out Daniel Weatherford and got Rico Carrasco to line out to Brandon Rudy at second base to end the threat.
Both pitchers tossed solid games, with Braden Williams allowing singles to Coby Potvin and Chase Sortor through four innings and Frick scattering a few hits and striking out eight of 11 batters in a stretch of three innings.
The Tigers turned a defensive miscue into an amazing out. With one out in the top of the fifth inning, Garcia laid down a sacrifice bunt to move Braden Williams to second. The Tigers got Garcia at first, but third was left unattended as Hobey Hiland made an athletic play on the throw. As Braden Williams rounded for second and broke for third, Miguel Quinones turned from behind the mound and broke toward third to try and beat the runner.
Sortor flung a throw to Quinones in stride and he slapped the tag on the runner a split second before he touched third. The play within the double play was a display to never give up on a play.
It took the Tigers just two pitches after the double play to cash in. Sortor demolished an 0-1 pitch over the left field fence over the service road into the parking lot to give the Tigers a 1-0 lead.
Belton’s Jacob Alexander also provided solid backstopping, as he threw out Brenden Williams at second and scooped out balls in the dirt to keep runners from advancing. Frick only allowed one runner after the homer and locked down the 1-0 win.
Tigers picked up three hits for the game, two from Sortor and one from Potvin. Frick pitched a complete game five-hitter, walking three and striking out 11.
Braden Williams pitched solid in the loss, tossing six innings, allow one run on three hits, striking out 10 and allowing no walks.
Up North for Game Two
The venue for game two shifted to QuikTrip Park in Grand Prairie. The game, slated for an 8:30 p.m. start, began a few minutes after 10 p.m.
The Tigers got a two out single and stolen base from Collin Mask, but he was stranded in the top of the first.
Nimitz started their offensive side of the first inning, much in the same as they did in game one. Braden Williams and Ryan Belfantz, while and Rico Carrasco singled to load the bases. Trent Stafford got Torres to strike out and made an amazing spinning throw on a drag bunt attempt by Weatherford to get Belton out of trouble in the bottom of the first.
Once again, both hurlers pitched great into the middle of the ball game. Nimitz starter Brandon Ross had four strikeouts through five innings and Trent Stafford ran into minimal difficulty, with six strikeouts through four and a thirds.
With one out in the bottom of the fifth, Braden Williams walked and Ryan Belfantz singled Williams to third base. Ragan singled home Williams on a full-count pitch and Carrasco double home Belfantz and Ragan to make the score 3-0. Stafford got Torres to ground out to Sortor at first and Rudy’s diving stop of Weatherford’s bid for a hit stopped the rally at three runs.
Stafford shut down the Vikings in the sixth inning to give Belton a final crack to tie Nimitz in the seventh. Alexander walked and Aaron Reed came on to courtesy run. Sortor was able to move Reed to second, but was put out a Shane Stafford’s fielder’s choice to leave the Tigers with runners at the corners with one out. Dustin Tish singled in Reed and runners remained at first and second. Vikings’ head coach Robert Mendoza brought in Carrasco to pitch to Quinones, who he struck out for the second out of the inning. He then walked Potvin to load the bases. He then went to a 3-1 count to Trent Stafford before a pitch just off the outside corner was called ball four and scored Trent Stafford. The catcher Braden Williams then whipped around to the home plate umpire and flailed his arms in protest of the call for several moments. It was just as Williams turned back around and Carrasco charged towards the home plate umpire in protest as well. Williams intercepted Carrasco about 15 feet in front of the plate, with Carrasco screaming and gesturing towards the home plate umpire. In many cases, players are ejected for arguing balls and strikes. Inexplicably, the umpiring crew allowed the pair to stay in the game. Mask worked Carrasco to a full-count with the bases loaded and two outs. Carrasco threw a fastball that Mask swung at on the outside corner to end the ball game.
Trent Stafford pitched a complete game, allowing three runs on seven hits, walking two (both to Braden Williams), and striking out eight. Sortor went 2-for 2, Potvin went 1-for-for two with a walk and was hit by a pitch and Tish was 1-of-3 with an RBI.
Nimitz ended Belton’s 19-game winning streak, which was Class 6A’s third 19-game winning streak of the day broken, with Dallas Jesuit and Keller having theirs broken earlier on Friday. San Antonio O’Connor had theirs broken on May 7. Four 19-game winning streaks broken in eight days and three of those streaks ended in a matter of hours may never be done again.
The game set up a third and decisive encounter at QuikTrip Saturday afternoon, just 11 hours after the conclusion of game two.
After some sleep, Game Three
The way that the series had gone prior to game three, you had that feeling it was going to be a single play or pitch that was going to be pivotal.
Trent Stafford and Hiland each singled, while Nathan Vail walked to load the bases. Sortor hit a sharp ball to Brendan Williams at shortstop, who flipped the ball to Garcia to force out Vail and threw down on a bang-bang play at first to get Sortor out for the double play to get the Vikings out of harm’s way.
Nimitz wanted no part of an early struggle for runs and hit Cameron Whitman early, with Braden Williams tripling to start the bottom of the first and Ragan plating Williams with a triple of his own. Whitman settled down and got the final two outs of the inning.
After the Tigers left Quinones on third in the top of the inning, the Vikings got trouble started on the benefit on another close call at first base when Weatherford was thrown out by a step at first base on a good defensive play on the run by Quinones and good stretch by Sortor. The first base umpire did not see it that way and called Weatherford safe. It led to a Viking rally that loaded the bases. Whitman carefully pitched his way through the inning before getting Belfantz to fly out to Quinones to end the threat quietly.
Tigers would roar in the fourth. Tish singled, but forced out on an attempted sacrifice bunt turned fielder’s choice by Quinones. Miggy swiped second and Rudy’s singled Quinones to third. Potvin’s sacrifice fly scored Quinones to tie up the ballgame.
A pair of great defensive plays from Whitman and the Tigers’ infield over the fifth and second innings set Belton up for a seventh-inning rally. Hiland doubled into the left field corner to start the inning. Vail sacrificed Hiland to third and Nimitz wanted no part of Sortor, giving him an intentional pass to put runners at the runners at corners. Alexander singled to left-center field, scoring Hiland to give Belton a 2-1 lead. Carrasco, who relieved middle reliever Alex Rodriguez, forced Tish to fly out to left field and Quinones to fly out to right field.
Belton head coach Eddie Cornblum chose to go with his left-handed ace Frick to secure the ball game for the Tigers. Braden Williams, Frick’s game one counterpart on the hill, tripled on an 1-0 to start the bottom of the seventh. After striking out Belfantz, Ragan walked. Carrasco grounded out to Hiland, who fielded a grounder on the run to his glove-hand side, allowing Williams to score to tie the game with two outs and move Ragan to second base. Torres worked Frick into a 2-0 count. On the next pitch, Torres hit a liner up the middle past a diving Quinones. Potvin threw towards the plate on a dead sprint, but the throw arrived to Alexander as Ragan slid headfirst over the plate. As the Vikings came roaring out of the dugout and dog piled on Torres in the first base coaches box, the emotional Tigers were forced to watch to jubilant Nimitz squad celebrate their furthest advancement in the playoffs since the school opened in 1969.
“Leaving here today, nothing is going to take away the pain of what they feel right now,” Cornblum said. “It’s a great group of kids. Since August, they have defied what people have said and set out to do what people said they couldn’t do. People were penciling us in to be a third-place team. They strung out 19 wins in a row, won district and bi-district and came one out from going to the next round. This team has a lot of heart.”
Cornblum had nothing but praise and complements about the Irving Nimitz Vikings.
“This was a heck of a series,” Cornblum said. “We had 10 hits in the first two games and only had three runs. We just couldn’t score with runners in scoring position. We went into the seventh today and got the lead. I thought with the Vikings seeing Cameron three times today that we would give them something different to look at and give us the lefty-on-lefty matchup (Frick vs. Braden Williams). He ends up hitting the 1-0 pitch to the deepest part of the park and there was nothing Coby could do but run it down. It just didn’t work out.”
The team is projected to pitching-heavy in 2016. Frick, Whitman and Trent Stafford will return for their senior seasons, as the cupboard is stocked with live arms on the JV Red and JV White pitching staffs. Hiland and Quinones with anchor the left side of the infield, Rudy will be the incumbent at second base utility players, such as Mark Reynolds, look for a shot at an infield position in 2016. Vail and Hohhertz return for their senior seasons behind the plate. Trent Stafford will play outfield when not pitching. There is a mass of talent between JV Red and JV White to give the Tigers lots of depth.
“We will get the nucleus of the infield coming back, so that’s something to be excited about.
The team has suffered last at-bat heartbreaks for three consecutive playoff years, which each year winning a district title. In 2013, South Grand Prairie won the game in the bottom of the ninth inning with a walk-off single 10-9 to beat the Tigers two games to one in the bi-district playoffs. In 2014, South Grand Prairie scored four runs in the first and the Tigers rallied to within one run at 4-3 and had a runner in scoring position before bang-bang play at first base ended the title hopes, again in the opening round. In 2015, Belton has the lead before a two-run rally in the bottom of the seventh inning derails their state title road in the second round. Bitter endings for the Tigers are never good endings, but future success is built upon tough lessons learned.