ABILENE — Brownwood could almost taste its first state-tournament berth Thursday night, even though it was only the second inning.
The Lions led the Andrews Mustangs by four runs with Shelby Miller, the Gatorade Texas High School Baseball Player of the Year, on the mound.
But three factors were working against Miller: a tight strike zone that led to six walks, a week-long battle with mononucleosis that zapped the pitching ace of his strength, and three untimely errors behind him.
Andrews beat Brownwood 9-7 at Hunter Field in the Region I-3A championship game, giving the Mustangs their fourth state-tournament appearance and denying the Lions their first. In fact, the last time Brownwood advanced this far, in 1990, it also was Andrews that stopped the Lions a game short of the state tournament.
Opportunistic 10th-ranked Andrews (23-7) squeezed nine runs out of only five hits and knocked Miller out of the game after 4.2 innings. Malachi Melton blasted a three-run double over center fielder Tanner Vaughn’s head, capping a five-run third inning that gave the Mustangs a 5-4 lead they never lost.
“We felt good. We felt like we were on a roll,” Brownwood coach Scotty Nichols said after the Lions took a 4-0 lead in the second inning, highlighted by Levi Perez’s two-run triple. “Andrews hit the ball some, and we knew they would. But we made some untimely errors and made some untimely baserunning mistakes. We played hard; we just make some mistakes.”
Ninth-ranked Brownwood (18-10) saw its 16-game win streak end while losing for the first time this year in four postseason games on the Hardin-Simmons University campus. Thursday’s game was played before an overflow crowd — the grandstands were packed and fans stood three-deep along the first- and third-base fences.
The Lions, who hadn’t committed an error in four previous postseason games, made three costly ones Thursday, with each coming with Andrews runners on base. Only five of the Mustangs’ nine runs were earned.
Miller only allowed four hits, but was touched for eight runs (five earned) after issuing six walks, hitting two batters and having two errors committed behind him. Miller and Nichols said the home plate umpire called a tight strike zone Thursday, which hurt the pitching-dependent Lions.
“I wasn’t getting any calls on the corner (of home plate),” Miller said. “I thought he (the umpire) was off, but I can’t call balls and strikes. I got frustrated out there on the mound when I didn’t get some calls tonight, and that’s my fault for not showing better poise.
“Plus, my curve ball was off, and with it being off, their hitters could sit on the fast ball. It was my fault on the mound for not getting my curve ball over. I give Andrews credit for knowing they could sit back and wait for the fast ball. They’re the best team we played this year, and we played 20-something games.”
Miller has been battling mononucleosis for more than a week. He admitted it zapped him of some strength, but he refused to use it as an excuse.
“His strength has been down, but I would say he was about 90 percent tonight,” Nichols said of Miller’s health. “The bigger thing, I thought, was the tight calling behind the plate. They weren’t calling strikes on the corner, and when they do that, you have to throw down the middle of the plate. When we have to do that, it’s not going to be a fun night for anybody.”
Even with Miller off the mound, Brownwood rallied from an 8-4 deficit in the sixth inning. Patrick Espinoza stroked a line-drive single to center field, Miller, who remained in the game at third base, was hit by a pitch, and Parker Taylor walked to load the bases. Graylon Brown then hit a soft line drive to right field for a two-run single, scoring Espinoza and Miller and pulling the Lions within 8-6.
Taylor then scored on a fielding error by Andrews third baseman Raul Valenzuela, pulling Brownwood within 8-7.
Andrews manufactured an insurance run for a 9-7 lead in the bottom of the sixth as Kaleb Calvillo was hit by a pitch, reached second base on a passed ball and went to third on a sacrifice bunt. Calvillo then scored on Brownwood’s third error of the night as three Lions all ran a long way but couldn’t rundown Melton’s fly ball to shallow right-center field.
Brownwood then ran itself out of a chance to rally in the seventh inning. Tanner Vaughn doubled over the right fielder’s head, but was thrown out while trying to stretch the hit into a triple. Levi Perez then singled to left field, which could have scored Vaughn and pulled the Lions within a run.
Andrews pitcher Ryan Diaz (7-2), who allowed two earned runs and five hits over the final four innings, struck out Espinoza to end the game.
Brownwood loaded the bases in the second inning with a single by Brown and walks by Josh Fleming and Vance McShan. Brown scored on a sacrifice fly by Cameron Chisholm. Perez made it 3-0 with his two-run triple that scored Fleming and McShan. The Lions made it 4-0 when Andrews center fielder Eleazar Luna couldn’t handle Espinoza’s fly ball, allowing Perez to score.
Andrews’ five-run third inning began when Miller hit Jeffrey Ramirez and Ozzie Bueno reached base on Espinoza’s throwing error. Back-to-back singles by Luna and Calvillo scored Ramirez and Bueno, pulling the Mustangs within 4-2.
Diaz walked, and then Melton delivered his three-run double that gave Andrews the 5-4 lead.
“We had the error early in that inning that gave them runners at second and third with nobody out,” Miller said. “It just went downhill for us from there. They got that one good hit (Melton’s double), and when they got the 5-4 lead, they got the momentum and we never could get it back.”
In the fourth inning, Andrews scored two runs without getting a hit. A walk, a hit batter, a throwing error on Brownwood catcher Dillon Ellis and then a passed ball scored Bueno and Luna, extending the Mustangs’ lead to 7-4.
In the Andrews fifth, Kyle Coomer walked, stole second base and scored on Bueno’s soft line drive to left field. The Mustangs had built an 8-4 lead and chased Miller from the pitcher’s mound.
“We’re disappointed, but we’re not hanging our heads,” Nichols said. “We came a long way from 2-9. When we were 2-9, nobody believed in us. We battled through it. I’m proud of this team. We just have to come back next year and try to move forward.”