Last season, a Brownwood Lions baseball team with no postseason experience matched its deepest playoff run in program history. Twelve months later, a seasoned squad of Lions will take a crack at surpassing that accomplishment starting with this weekend’s best-of-three bi-district series against the Ennis Lions.
Game 1 of the UIL Class 4A state baseball playoffs opening-round series will take place at 8 p.m. at Southwestern University in Georgetown. Games 2 and 3, if needed, will follow at 1 p.m. Saturday at the same location.
Ennis (19-8), the third seed from District 15-4A, is making its postseason return after a one-year absence, but head coach Scotty Nichols and the Lions (16-13), the District 16-4A runners-up, are confident the lessons learned from last year’s playoff run will serve as a huge advantage.
“We were blessed last year to have a good year and we’re blessed to have a lot of those guys back,” Nichols said. “Some of our older guys spoke to the younger guys that haven’t been in a playoff atmosphere before. They told them it was a whole new intensity level, and we seem to play pretty good in big games and big game environments, especially on the road. We’re going to put (Ennis) to that same test and see how they respond in that situation. We’re looking forward to seeing what happens.”
Perhaps last year’s run to the Region II-4A semifinals — where all the games were played away from Morris Southall Field — is the reason the Lions have become a stellar road team. This year Brownwood was 5-0 on the road in district contests, and just 2-3 at home.
“Most teams like to go home and home, but we seem to focus a little better when we’re on the road and can get away from some distractions,” Nichols said. “We know the maturity level of our guys on the road is a big part of why we don’t mind getting away and getting to play in a big stadium somewhere. We’ve had a good year with our traveling and we’re going to keep that up and see what happens.”
Another reason for Brownwood’s success on the road is pitcher Shelby Miller, who started every Lions’ district road game. Opponents managed a total of four runs in the Lions’ five district games away from home.
Miller, a junior, has collected three no-hitters — including a perfect game — this year, along with an 8-2 record, 1.11 ERA and 119 strikeouts in 57 innings. Two of the no-hitters occurred in district action.
But as was the case last year, a staff of at least three will be needed for the Lions to advance in a series. Garrett Goodwin has returned and posted a 2-4 record with a 3.89 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 36 innings, while Josh Fleming has emerged as the third pitcher in the rotation with a 3-2 record, 3.11 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 27 innings.
“Pitching is going to be critical in the series,” Nichols said. “Between the two teams there are going to be four or five really good pitchers on the mound. Our pitchers have to throw strikes and not allow walks. We have to make sure one bad thing doesn’t happen and then it snowballs. It doesn’t matter who’s on mound, we have to play defense, make routine plays and little things like that will win the series for us.”
Ennis has a pair of impressive pitchers of its own in right-hander Weston Montgomery and left-hander Chris Lewis. Montgomery owns a 7-2 record with three saves, a 0.70 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 50 innings. Lewis is 5-1 with a save, a 2.60 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 62 innings.
“They have two guys that can throw pretty decent,” Nichols said. “They have a righty and a lefty and one has a real low ERA. I don’t know how hard they throw, but they’re around the plate and don’t give up a lot of walks. The righty could be comparable to Shelby, or not very not far off from his range.”
The Brownwood offense will be looking to snap out of a recent dry spell as the Lions have tallied just eight runs over the last two games after averaging 6.9 runs per game through their first eight district encounters.
Miller also leads the Lion offense with a .413 batting average, nine home runs and 32 RBIs — all team-highs. Other power threats include third baseman Casey Pachall, who owns a .394 average with four home runs and 27 RBIs, and catcher Chase Holmes, who chalked up a .343 average with a pair of homers and 24 RBIs.
Setting the table at the top of the lineup are first baseman Parker Taylor (.386, 19 RBIs) and right fielder Chris Munson (.388, 6 RBIs), while Jacob Allen (.324, HR, 12 RBIs) has ignited several rallies toward the bottom of the order.
“We’ve been hitting the ball well, it slowed down against Midway last Friday night, but we still hit the ball hard,” Nichols said. “The last couple of games we’ve been hitting the ball right at people pretty hard, and as a coach it’s hard to gripe when the ball is hit hard. If we keep doing that, things are going to roll our way. We just have to go up there with the approach that we want to get it to the next guy, and let the next guy have a chance to knock somebody in.”
During last year’s playoff run, the Lions swept each series in which they won they first game. Brownwood will look to put that type of pressure on Ennis from the opening pitch as the Lions, who will be the visiting team tonight, have developed a knack for scoring runs in bunches in the first inning.
“Our goal is to come out, play our baseball game, get ahead of them early during the first bat since we’re the visiting team, and put the pressure on them to make something happen,” Nichols said.
Nichols is also aware that if the Lions are unable to establish a sizable cushion early, Ennis has been known to cause trouble in the later innings.
“They’re a scrappy group of guys to play against and if you let them hang around it could be interesting in the end,” Nichols said. “We have to make sure we hit the ball, play smart, be aggressive on the base paths and make routine outs. If we do that, we’ll be in good shape.”
The series winner will meet 13-4A champ Dallas Hillcrest in the area around.