MINERAL WELLS — The new experiences continued for the Brownwood Lions Friday night as, for the first time this postseason, they find themselves in the driver’s seat in a best-of-three playoff series.
Behind a 16-strikeout, five-hit performance from sophomore pitcher Shelby Miller, the Lions knocked off the Dallas Hillcrest Panthers, 5-2, in Game 1 of their Region II-4A area round series at Pratt Field.
Game 2 will take place at noon today at the same location, with Game 3, if needed, to follow 30 minutes after the completion of Game 2.
“The win was great for us, but we know better than anybody that anything can still happen,” said Lions head coach Scotty Nichols. “We have to make sure we don’t have a let down. It’s great to be up 1-0, but we’ve still got a long way left to go.”
Miller (8-5) — who entered the game with 100 strikeouts in 72 innings pitched — struck out the side in the first, third and sixth innings. He also recorded two strikeouts apiece in the fourth, fifth and seventh innings.
“I was throwing a lot of strikes, and the last game I was a little out of control,” said Miller, referring to the six runs and seven hits he allowed in a 12-0 loss in Game 1 to Waxahachie last week. “I was throwing my fastball pretty hard tonight, but I also threw a lot of junk. I picked up my slider this week and threw it out of the zone and that’s how I got a lot of strikeouts, along with some curve balls.”
Hillcrest (18-15) was able to get an unearned run off Miller in the top of the first inning as Erik Severson reached on a one-out error, then came home to score on Chaz Smith’s two-out RBI triple, which banged off the wall in right field.
The Lions (19-11) responded with half of their six hits off Smith — who is bound for Rice, according to Nichols — in the bottom of the first en route to grabbing a 4-1 lead.
“Those four runs gave us a little confidence and they turned out to be huge” Nichols said. “We needed some confidence. Hopefully that carries over into tomorrow and we can get the sticks going again.”
Tanner Vaughn started the inning with a single to right field, then Parker Taylor reached base after laying down a perfectly placed bunt. With one out Miller was hit by a pitch, which loaded the bases for Chase Holmes.
Holmes then hit a grounder to Hillcrest second baseman Michael Hinojosa, who first booted the ball, then threw it away. That allowed Vaughn and Taylor to score and give the Lions a 2-1 edge.
Jonathan White followed and laced a two-RBI single to left field to cap the scoring in the inning.
“I was down 0-2 and thankfully I was able to come through and put the ball in play,” White said. “We started off like we ended last Friday. We knew (Smith) had a pretty good curve ball and fast ball, but we hit the ball really good in the first inning.”
The Lions managed just three hits the rest of the way against Smith, who fanned 14 batters himself.
Brownwood’s final run came during the bottom of the sixth inning as Jarrod Howey — running for Holmes, who led off the inning with a single — scored on a bases-loaded dropped third strike during Vaughn’s at-bat.
Hillcrest managed just one more run off Miller after the first inning, that coming in the third on Severson’s RBI single that plated Joseph Paylor, who doubled. Smith also doubled with two outs, but Miller escaped the inning with a strikeout that left runners on second and third.
The Panthers got runners to second and third with one out in the fourth inning as well, but again Miller closed the door with a pair of strikeouts as Hillcrest left six runners stranded on base in the game.
“I knew a walk in those situations would load the bases and that isn’t good for the team,” said Miller, who did issue three free passes. “I just went out there and tried not to let them hit the ball. If they did, I relied on my defense.”