By Mike Bruu, TSB Sports Editor
From a weather standpoint, Thursday night’s Bi-district series opener between the McKinney Lions and the District 9-5A champion Dallas Jesuit Rangers felt nothing like a May playoff game.
With the players in long sleeves and the parents and fans all bundled in jackets and blankets, Al Alford Field in McKinney had the feel of a pre-season tournament game in early February. The temperature at game time was 41 degrees with the wind chill in the mid-30’s. In addition, the gusts of wind were blowing around 20-25 MPH from the northwest, causing the flags in right-centerfield to blow straight out over the centerfield fence.
Despite the miserable playing conditions, the Lions and Rangers played a classic postseason baseball game in the first matchup in the best-of-three series. On the back of a solid outing by junior starter Brad Vassar and aggressive moves on the base paths, McKinney (18-11) took game one 6-5 over Jesuit. The Lions can win the series Friday night in game two at Jesuit.
“It’s very exciting,” said Vassar. “We have some momentum going into that second game, so it is good.”
Vassar went six innings on the mound for the Lions and allowed five earned runs on 111 pitches. He struck out 10 and only walked four, in addition to scattering five hits to a very stout Ranger lineup.
“Brad is a competitor, so every time he goes out there he competes,” said McKinney head coach Jeremy Price. “That is a quality we want in our guys that go out on the mound.”
Price had his choice between Vassar and junior Brett Gannaway to start game one, but the Lions head coach said he went with the lefty because of the matchups against the Jesuit lineup.
“We just looked at the matchups,” said Price. “We liked Brad’s stuff and what he featured in game one, and we will come back with Brett tomorrow and hopefully do the same thing.”
Gannaway is scheduled to start game two Friday night at Jesuit, but the righty did get some work in on Thursday night. He came into the game in the top of the seventh inning with the Lions holding on to a one-run lead, and despite allowing two base hits, Gannaway retired the No. 3 and 4 hitters in the Ranger lineup to seal the win.
The big inning of the game was the fourth, when the two teams combined for eight runs on five hits. After taking a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the second, Vassar was cruising through the first three innings. Facing one batter above the minimum, the junior lefty had struck out had struck out seven and allowed just one hit.
However, the second time through the Ranger lineup wasn’t as kind to Vassar as Max Ready and Darius Hill hit back-to-back singles to open up the inning and put runners on the corners. After Hill stole second base, Grant Reuben walked to load the bases with no outs.
The Lions lead would be cut to 3-2 after William Hairston walked on five pitches and Grant Hatzmann sacrifice flied to center field to score Hill from third. With runners on second and first, Nic Ready stepped to the plate and roped a double down the right field line. Both runners were moving on the Vassar pitch, allowing Reuben and Hairston to both score and give Jesuit a 4-3 lead.
Just a few pitches later Ready would score from third on a wild pitch by Vassar, giving the Rangers a 5-3 lead. Throughout the five run inning, Vassar said he was trying to stay calm and collected on the mound.
“I was just trying to keep my composure and make good pitches,” said Vassar. “I wanted to use my defense behind me.”
Vassar said he was leaving his pitches up and over the plate, and said he didn’t feel like he had “very good command” in the inning. After the fourth inning, he would allow just one more hit and zero runs.
Jesuit starter Nick Campagna had flirted with trouble from the very beginning of the game against the Lions offense, leaving the bases loaded in the first. He was burned in the second inning for three runs off three hits, but the senior righty had worked out of trouble again in the third inning after seniors Gunnar Lund and Avery Arnold were stranded at second and first, respectively.
Now facing a two-run deficit, the Lion offense got back to work in the bottom of the fourth. Senior Garrett Dodd and junior Joe Baker hit back-to-back infield singles with one out, bringing the cleanup hitter Vassar to the plate. On the first pitch he saw, Vassar hit a towering fly ball to right centerfield. With both the center and right fielder giving chase, the right fielder Reuben called off Hatzmann and appeared to make the catch.
Fortunately for the Lions, the ball hit off Reuben’s glove and landed on the grass for a huge error. Having been standing on the bag in preparation to tag up and advance to third, Dodd sprinted around third and towards home. Meanwhile with Baker at first and heading to second base, Reuben threw the ball back in to the second baseman Phillip Young.
Instead of flipping the ball to the shortstop Hairston who was standing on second base, Young decided to throw the ball home in an effort to throw out Dodd. The throw would be well late and off line, allowing Baker to cruise into second base and give the Lions another runner in scoring position.
After a walk to senior catcher Dalton Harris loaded the bases, senior Jesse Cox hit a weak fly ball to second base on the first pitch of his at-bat. With the wind blowing straight out to center field, Young misplayed the ball as it landed a few feet beyond his outstretched glove in shallow right field. Baker was able to score from third to tie the game at 5-5, but Harris was thrown out at second base after Young flipped the ball to Hairston for the fielder’s choice.
With runners on the corners and two outs, Price decided to be aggressive with his base running, something he had talked about with his kids before the game.
“With the wind blowing out, it is really hard for outfielders to make throws,” said Price. “We talked about that long and hard before our pre game meeting that if we got the chance to take the extra base that we would.”
While the play wouldn’t involve any outfielders, Price called for Cox at first to take off for second on a steal. Senior Nathan Ahsam was pinch-running for Vassar at third base, and when the throw went down to second base to try and tag Cox, Ahsam took off for home. After a great slide around the tag from catcher Dan Keenan, Ahsam was called safe and the Lion faithful celebrated as they retook the lead 6-5.
“It says a lot about our kids,” said Price, in regard to his team’s comeback. “I try to look at the big picture and I think it says a lot about our offseason. We really stressed some mental toughness in the offseason, and to come back from a five-run inning is huge. I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
The Lions finished with seven hits and left eight runners on base. Garrett Christianson, Dodd, and Baker all had an RBI in the three-run second inning. Christianson hit a sacrifice fly to centerfield to score Lund, while Dodd stroked a RBI double to left center field to score Arnold. Baker capped off the inning with a towering RBI triple to center field that plated Dodd easily.
Even though he was proud of the offense, Price said his team’s goal was to play perfect defense. The goal came true for McKinney tonight, as the defense committed zero errors in the field.
“We talked about wanting to have a zero in that last column, with conditions the way they were and understanding that mistakes could be big,” said Price. “To have no errors up there, that gives us a chance.”
Baker made several stellar plays defensively in the hole at shortstop, while senior left fielder Trevor Duggan made the play of the game in the sixth. With the tying run on second base, Hairston popped a ball up to shallow left field in one that appeared would land between shortstop and the left fielder. However, Duggan sprinted several yards, dove to his left, and came up with a remarkable catch that drew the phrase from both McKinney and Jesuit fans.
The weather did not give the playoff-like atmosphere that baseball fans are used to this time of year, but the crowd at Al Alford Field was still very feisty and into the game. Fully equipped with the “Couch Potatoes,” the group of MHS students who sit along the fence of the third base side on two large couches, the Lions fans were in the ears of the Rangers players all night long.
“I can’t say enough about the size of the crowd, especially in conditions like this,” said Price. “That is part of home field advantage for sure.”
The Lions can advance to the Area round with a win in game two Friday night at Jesuit. First pitch is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Follow TSB on Facebook for live updates from the game and all the MISD playoff baseball and softball action.
Photos by Jennifer Santos.