Nineteen years after “the pitch” prevented Brownwood from advancing to the UIL state baseball tournament, “the pitcher” will attempt to carry the Lions to Austin for the first time.
In a rematch of the 1990 Region I-4A championship series, the No. 9 Brownwood Lions (18-9), winners of 16 straight contests, will battle the No. 10 Andrews Mustangs (22-7) in the Region I-3A championship game at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Hardin-Simmons University’s Hunter Field.
While the Lions appreciate the historical significance of the showdown — which is occurring in the 25th season of the Brownwood High baseball program — the team’s focus is on the present and the future, not the past.
“The only thing we’ve really said is that we’ve tied the 1990 team, but we’re not worried about who they played, what the score was or anything like that,” said Lions head coach Scotty Nichols. “It’s two different teams now. We’re interested in the past and anything involved with the school, but we’re more interested in continuing this win streak and making history.”
Still, a victory over Andrews would help soften the blow of a 6-5 Game 3 loss to Andrews that also took place at Hardin-Simmons University almost two decades ago. The Lions dropped Game 1, 11-1, on a Thursday in Big Spring, then took Game 2 by a 5-3 count the following Saturday, but not before helicopters were used to dry the field after an overnight downpour.
In the decisive game, a 5-5 tie was snapped in the bottom of the seventh inning as Andrews scored the winning run when a pitch slipped away to the backstop at Hunter Field.
“That play became known around here as ‘the pitch,’” said Lady Lions head soccer coach Brian Davis, who was a member of the 1990 Lions baseball team. “Everything just came to a screeching halt. Whether it was a wild pitch or a passed ball, nobody remembers or even says anymore.”
The Lions are counting on “the pitcher” — Gatorade Texas High School Baseball Player of the Year Shelby Miller — to mow down his fourth postseason foe in what will be his final start before the June 9 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, where he is expected to be a first-round selection.
Miller is coming off a season-high 17 strikeouts in Saturday’s 3-1 three-hitter against West. In four starts since the end of the regular season — including a playoff warm-up game against Robinson — Miller (10-1, 1.60 ERA, 146 strikeouts in 73 innings) has allowed just two earned runs on 13 hits with 57 strikeouts in 28 innings.
Though he has pitched in all but one Brownwood postseason game, Miller’s light workload early in the season was designed to make sure the Lions’ ace was fresh for the playoff run the team is enjoying.
“We know he’s going to be fine,” Nichols said. “We talk to Shelby a lot before we decide what we’re going to do. He didn’t pitch that much at the beginning of the year and in district he only pitched once a week. The only time he’s thrown twice in the same week was against Seminole and then coming back in the Lubbock Cooper series. He’s going to have a day more of rest than he did against Lubbock Cooper, so we expect good things.
“I can promise you he’s going to be pumped up, just like everybody else, with a berth in the state tournament riding on it.”
But Miller may be facing the toughest lineup he’s seen this postseason, according to Nichols.
Andrews, which scored 15 runs against Brownwood’s 2-3A rival Snyder in the bi-district round of the playoffs, enters the regional championship with a .374 team batting average, 17 home runs and an average of 9.8 runs per game. Lubbock Cooper owned similar gaudy stats — a .377 team batting average, 29 home runs and 9.8 runs per game — but managed just one run in 14 innings against the Lions’ pitching staff.
Five Mustangs are batting .400 or batter — Ryan Diaz (.529, 8 HRs, 48 RBIs), Malachi Melton (.465, 5 HRs, 39 RBIs), Raul Valenzuela (.419, HR, 18 RBIs), Kaleb Calvillo (.417, 19 RBIs) and Eleazar Luna (.400, HR, 8 RBIs).
“Andrews swings the bats extremely well,” Nichols said. “This is probably going to be the best team we’ve played all year, especially at the plate. They remind me of the Robinson guys, good looking kids that can swing the bat pretty good. They’re going to hit the ball, so we’re going to have to make plays on defense to back Shelby up.”
The Lion offense has been on a bit of a roller coaster ride in the postseason, despite batting .342 as a team. After mustering just two runs against Seminole, Brownwood answered with 19 runs in two games against Lubbock Cooper. But the Lions finished with just three hits against West, one being Miller’s game-winning two-run home run in the bottom of the fifth inning.
“No doubt we’re going to have to hit the ball better against Andrews to get by, and we fully expect to,” Nichols said. “The pitcher from West did a good job of keeping us off balance, and that’s the same thing the guys from Andrews are going to try to do. We just have to have a good approach at the plate and be selective with our pitches and we’ll be fine.”
Parker Taylor (.452, 25 RBIs), who recorded a double for Brownwood’s only other hit against West, continues to lead the Lions at the plate, followed by Miller (.436, 5 HRs, 37 RBIs). The rest of the Lion batting order features six players hitting over .300 — Levi Perez (.378, 3 HRs, 22 RBIs), Graylon Brown (.377, 3 HRs, 18 RBIs), Cameron Chisholm (.373, 12 RBIs), Josh Fleming (.368, 14 RBIs), Vance McShan (.324, HR, 15 RBIs) and Patrick Espinoza (.304, 9 RBIs). No. 9 hitter Tanner Vaughn (.197, 8 RBIs) reached on the first of three West errors Saturday and scored the tying run in the fifth.
Andrews’ pitching staff — which possesses a 2.93 team ERA and allows just 3.9 runs per game — is anchored by Diaz (6-2, 2.20 ERA, 59 strikeouts in 51 innings). Other options on the mound include Valenzuela (7-1, 3.05, 46 strikeouts in 36.2 innings), Ozzy Bueno (3-0, 2.21, 20 strikeouts in 19 innings) and Calvillo (3-2, 3.36, 11 strikeouts in 16.2 innings).
“The Diaz kid is their leading pitcher, but they have pretty good depth on the mound,” Nichols said. “They have three or four other guys that can throw like we do.”
The Lions’ rally against West was aided by three errors, while Brownwood has been near flawless in the field in the postseason. Andrews, meanwhile, committed five errors in its two-game sweep of Decatur last weekend.
“They’re pretty solid defensively, but they look like they could have the tendency to every now and then let one fly or not field it clean,” Nichols said. “One of our advantages is I think we play better defense than they do, but it’s just going to come down to who makes the plays when the time comes.”
If Brownwood is able to secure the regional championship and earn a berth in the UIL Class 3A state baseball tournament June 11-12 at Disch-Falk Field on the University of Texas at Austin campus, it would cap an amazing turnaround — considering the Lions lost nine of their first 11 games.
“It would be huge for us,” Nichols said. “These guys have worked extremely hard. We started 2-9 and there was a lot of doubt and uncertainty, but we knew if we stayed focused everything would work out for us once we got into district play. We did it, we’re still doing it and we hope Thursday night at about 10 p.m. we’re still going.”
And what of the 1990 team, which could be eclipsed in the history books? Well, records are meant to be broken, after all.
“If anybody can do it, this group can,” Davis said. “They’re similar to our team in a lot of ways. They take the game seriously, but they also have a whole lot of fun.”