Success breeds confidence, and rebounding from a 12-run Game 1 loss to capture a bi-district championship in three games has the Brownwood Lions baseball team feeling good about its odds of earning more postseason hardware.
The Lions (18-11) — whose first playoff appearance since 1999 has already resulted in one golden trophy — will shoot for a Region II-4A area title in a best-of-three series with the District 13-4A champion Dallas Hillcrest Panthers (18-14) this weekend.
Game 1 of the series is slated for an 8 p.m. first pitch Friday in Mineral Wells. Game 2 will follow at the same location Saturday at noon, with Game 3, if needed, scheduled to begin 30 minutes after Game 2’s completion.
Brownwood reached the second round with victories of 9-3 and 4-1 over Waxahachie last Friday, after suffering a 12-0, five-inning loss in the series opener.
“Losing the first game by such a large deficit and then coming back and playing great defense and hitting the ball well makes the guys have so much more confidence in themselves,” said Lions head coach Scotty Nichols. “Our confidence was definitely bolstered by the way we played Friday. Hopefully that will carry over and we’ll play to the best of our abilities against Hillcrest.”
Having finally experienced the taste of postseason competition, Game 1 jitters — which Nichols felt could have been a factor in Thursday’s lopsided loss — shouldn’t be a problem for the Lions this weekend.
“I think it may have had a little to do with nerves,” said Nichols of falling in a hole against Waxahachie. “It was a different atmosphere and a bi-district title was on the line and it was new to the guys. It might have had an effect on them Thursday, but it didn’t Friday. We came back with our minds ready to play.”
With a first-round bye due to winning its district, Hillcrest could be the team that needs a few innings to shake off the rust. But the Panthers were in action as recently as eight days ago, knocking off non-district foe Seagoville, 2-1.
How good the Panthers actually are remains a mystery heading into the series opener. Hillcrest owns a 12- game win streak and breezed through district action, outscoring its opponents 123-13 en route to an unblemished 10-0 league record.
Outside of 13-4A action, however, Hillcrest posted an 8-14 record, including losing streaks of six games to start the season and four heading into league action. The Panthers allowed an average of 8.3 runs per game over their first 20, while scoring just 6.5 runs.
District runner-up North Dallas (18-5) — which lost to Hillcrest 4-3 and 6-0 — is still alive after sweeping its bi-district series over Dallas Adamson (9-19), but that doesn’t offer much help in determining 13-4A’s strength. North Dallas will face 16-4A champ Midway (18-11) in a home-and-home series this weekend.
Despite the uncertainty, Nichols and company are heading into the series anticipating another stern test.
“I expect to see a good team,” Nichols said. “They played a good, tough schedule and two teams in that district are still going. They’ll be solid.
“Coach (Mike) Tovar does a good job, but I believe we match up pretty well with these guys. We’ll have to see how it comes out and who plays the hardest.”
Hillcrest enters the series batting .329 as a team, led by Josh Flores’ .518 average, eight doubles, five triples, four home runs and 38 RBIs.
Three more Panthers carry batting averages of .400 or better into Friday’s opener. Revin Wade is batting .425 with 13 RBIs, while Joseph Paylor owns a .410 average with nine doubles, five triples, four home runs, 23 RBIs and a team-high 31 stolen bases. Chaz Smith is a .405 hitter with two homers and 19 RBIs.
Despite posting five shutouts in district action, the Panthers possess a less than stellar team ERA of 7.45 and have used eight different pitchers with Smith, Phillip Sartain, Michael Hinojosa and Michael Robinowitz each working over 30 innings.
Sartain has a team-best 2.91 ERA and a 5-2 record with 41 strikeouts in 33.2 innings pitched, while Hinojosa has tossed a team-high 41 innings and is 4-4 with a 6.32 ERA and 37 strikeouts. Smith is 4-1 with a 4.16 ERA with 35 strikeouts in 32 innings and Robinowitz is 4-5 with a 7.74 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 31.2 innings.
“I’m not too concerned about their offense, but they’ve got to be good to get this far and win a district championship,” Nichols said. “We’ve seen a little of what they have pitching-wise, they have a good lefty and a good righty, but we still don’t know that much about them. We’re just going to go in and hope we can keep the sticks alive and make some plays.”
After mustering just two hits in the opener against Waxahachie, the Lions responded with 18 hits over the final two games. In three separate innings Friday, the Lions produced at least three runs during the frame.
Clean-up hitter Shelby Miller — who was 6-for-8 in the series and batted for the cycle with five RBIs — leads Brownwood’s offense with a .444 average, 19 extra-base hits, four home runs and 31 RBIs.
Other key contributors last weekend included No. 3 batter Mason Ellis (.302, two home runs, 20 RBIs, 21 walks), No. 5 batter Chase Holmes (.305, one home run, 14 RBIs, 34 walks), lead-off man Tanner Vaughn (.311, 13 RBIs, 27 walks) and No. 9 hitter Jason Maldonado (.282, 13 RBIs).
On the mound, Brownwood counters with a pitching staff of Miller, Ellis and Garrett Goodwin that limited Waxahachie to seven hits and stranded 15 base runners in the final two games of the bi-district series.
Entering Friday’s action, Miller is 7-5 with a 2.33 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 72 innings pitched. Ellis sports a 3-1 record with a 3.71 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 23 innings, while Goodwin is 3-2 with a 2.98 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 47 innings.
“We made some unbelievable plays defensively and our guys did a great job on the mound Friday,” Nichols said. “I didn’t expect both Mason and Garrett to go as far as they did. That was absolutely critical for us.”
Ellis tossed a complete-game three-hitter in Game 2 of the series, while Goodwin worked 6.1 innings in Game 3 before Miller closed the door to cap the four-hit victory. Defensively, the Lions committed just one-error in 14 innings of action Friday.
“If we continue to get that kind of pitching and if we play good defense behind it, there’s no telling how far we can go,” Nichols said.