Snake, rattle and roll

Baseball upsets top-ranked Reagan in down-to-the-wire playoff series


Margaret Edmonson

Looking for a signal, Ethan Gonzalez crouches behind home plate. Gonzalez, a sophomore, hit a walk-off single in extra innings on Saturday to take down No. 1 Reagan.

Jackson Posey, Sports Director

Baseball entered this past weekend’s region quarterfinals as road underdogs against Reagan, the No. 1-ranked team in the THSBCA’s state polls and one that advanced to at least the region semifinals in the past three seasons.

But after four weather delays and two dramatic, extra-innings comebacks, the Rangers emerged victorious.

“(Our mindset was) don’t change anything,” sophomore pitcher Jackson Elizondo said. “(We wanted to) play with the same intensity as we have been, if not more. I knew it was going to be a tough series, but I knew we were going to come out on top.”

The series started with a bang. In game one, Smithson Valley trailed 3-1 heading into the bottom of the seventh inning. Cohen Feser, Reagan’s ace pitcher and a TCU signee, had held the Rangers to two hits, two walks and six strikeouts through the game’s first six innings, and his return could have spelled the end for the Rangers. But they settled down at the plate and began to put men on base. With one out and empty bases, Ethan Gonzalez (slashing .409/.542/.557 this season) launched a double to left field, nearly clearing the fence. After that, it was off to the races.

Christian Keller moved courtesy runner Drew Fagala to third with a single, putting runners on the corners. Then an error at the keystone allowed Fagala to score and John Garza to reach first, before a subsequent wild pitch moved Keller and Garza into scoring position.

Still leading by one run, Feser cut down Ryan Ruff to move the Rattlers within an out of a game one victory. 

But with two on, two outs and a 1-0 series advantage on the line, Cameron Hodges stepped up and slapped an RBI single to shallow left field, scoring Keller and tying the game at three-all.

Feser struck out Kasen Wells to end the inning, but it was too little, too late; the Rangers had dragged the Rattlers, kicking and screaming, into extra innings.

Brandon Taylor (12-0, 0.82 ERA), Smithson Valley’s top pitcher and a Temple College signee, returned to the mound for the top of the eighth inning despite having already thrown 94 pitches, a figure he’d only surpassed twice all season. But he worked around an early fielding error to finish his fifth consecutive scoreless frame, putting the game back in the hands of the offense.

And it didn’t take long for them to come through. Tim Arguello drove a first-pitch single back up the middle to bring up Cooper Burgess, who had entered the game earlier in relief of an injured David DeHoyos.

Burgess dropped a short bunt to move Arguello to second, but a miscommunication between the pitcher and catcher on who would pick up the ball delayed the throw to first. Feser eventually picked up the ball and whipped it to first baseman Hogan Heller, but the ball sailed away. The error allowed Arguello – who never stopped running – to make it all the way around the bases to score the game’s walk-off run, on a bunt that stopped rolling just five feet from home plate. The scoreboard read 4-3, Smithson Valley on top.

That momentum didn’t carry into the penultimate game two, however. Reagan pitchers Ryan Beaird (a UTSA signee) and Jake Burcham made sure of that, as they combined to allow just a single unearned run while striking out 10 batters. The Rattlers took a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning and never looked back, eventually winning 4-1.

That game, while perhaps anticlimactic, brought the series’ suspense to its zenith. Game three had all the makings of an all-timer: a sold-out, win-or-go-home showdown between two rival factions with legitimate claims at being among the best in the state. 

But on Saturday morning, the skies opened up, releasing sheets of rain on the North East Sports Park turf.

The game appeared to be in jeopardy of cancellation after the game was delayed 30 minutes from its scheduled 2 p.m. start time, but the skies relented – just for a moment – to allow the game to begin.

The Rattlers nearly pulled off a big first inning after Hodges walked the bases full with one out, but the Richland College signee zoned in, striking out Stayton Ankrom and luring Brennan Greer into a fielder’s choice to end the inning.

Both team’s bats went silent after that, as 12 of the next 14 hitters failed to reach base. The weather was a big part of the offensive slowdown; even without active precipitation, the baseballs were deadened and heavy from being soaked in the water, and the wet turf left several players slipping and sliding around the field.

In the bottom of the third inning, with the sun peeking through the clouds, the Rangers mustered their first earned runs since Thursday night. Ruff singled through the left side of the infield, and Wells dropped a single into center field to move him to second base. (Ruff might have been trying for third, but he slipped while rounding second base and inadvertently slid into the shortstop, who collapsed on top of Ruff. Neither player was injured in the collision.) Arguello doubled to center to score both runs, and just like that, Smithson Valley led 2-0.

But the lead didn’t last long. Hodges, who spent most of this season as a closer, was already over 60 pitches in when took the mound in the top of the fourth inning. He opened the frame by recording an assist on a groundout by Ankrom, but that was the last out he would record on the mound.

Greer opened up the rally by singling on a line drive to right field, then advancing to second on a wild pitch as Beaird drew a five-pitch walk. 

Then Aidan Coleman slapped a blooper into left field, which Keller immediately raced toward. He nearly caught it in the air, but slipped on the wet turf at the last second, allowing the ball to roll all the way to the outfield wall. Greer and Beaird both touched home plate to tie up the score at two-all.

With a man on second, Cole Tabor hit a routine ground ball to second baseman Cade Hansen, who hooked the throw. Coleman scored (giving Reagan a 3-2 lead), and Tabor advanced to second, prompting manager Chad Koehl to send Elizondo in from the bullpen. (Hansen headed for the bench, and Hodges moved back to his normal spot, second base.)

Entering the weekend, Elizondo had pitched just eight innings across six games, mostly in preseason action. But despite being on short rest – he had tossed an 18-pitch sixth inning on Friday, with two strikeouts and a walk – here he was, in a one-run game with a man on second and one out.

“I didn’t realize I was going on the mound (this series) until Coach said, ‘Elizondo, get to the bullpen’ in the bottom of the 5th in the second game,” Elizondo said. “I was extremely excited to go up there and finally get a chance to help my team. I was so excited and nervous. I can’t even explain what I was feeling. The only thing I was thinking was, throw strikes. It doesn’t matter if they hit you; throw strikes.”

Burcham fouled off three pitches but eventually flew out to Wells. Then Teagan Peeples grounded out to Ruff on a 3-1 count to end the inning. Just as he’d done in several of his preseason outings, Elizondo escaped a jam, stranding a runner in scoring position.

Despite throwing 90 pitches on Thursday, Feser relieved Greer and tossed 1 2/3 scoreless innings, walking one hitter and striking out another. With two outs and one on in the fifth frame the Rattlers sent in Burcham, who was on short rest after pitching two innings the night before. Under a fresh downpour, he walked Arguello before surrendering a deep fly ball to Garrett Brooks; fortunately for him, centerfielder Britton Moore snagged it at the warning track to end the inning. 

The umpires conferred about a potential rain delay but decided against it.

Meanwhile Elizondo, who sat down all three batters he faced in the fifth inning, induced a rainy pop out before the umpires finally delayed the game. After about five minutes, the sky cleared up, and Elizondo worked a double play to send the game to the bottom of the sixth inning.

Then the rain started back up, instigating yet another five-minute rain delay.

“The rain delays were terrible,” Elizondo said. “I kept getting in a groove and then I would get out of it, so it was hard to go back up there … and keep pushing through.”

Reagan held the Rangers hitless in the fourth and fifth innings, but they bounced back for a big showing in the sixth. Burgess began the festivities with a single, before Keller singled courtesy runner Jax Le Grande to second. Burcham walked Garza to load the bases, and then a wild pitch allowed all three runners to advance; Le Grande barely beat out the throw to the pitcher to cross the plate and tie up the game at 3-3.

On the very next pitch, with a 3-0 count, Burcham’s pitch nailed Ruff in the helmet. The shortstop immediately turned towards his own dugout, threw both arms in the air and tossed his bat aside. One out, loaded bases.

Burcham gunned down Hodges swinging, on five pitches. Then Wells came to the plate, fouling off two full-count pitches before ultimately drawing a walk, sending home Christian Keller, the go-ahead runner.

Burcham struck out Arguello to strand three, but the damage was done. With an inning to play, the Rangers led 4-3, and were firmly in the driver’s seat against one of the highest-ranked squads in the state.

But that lead didn’t last long. Elizondo – who’d allowed just one baserunner in his first 2 2/3 innings of work – walked Tabor and hit Peeples, putting two on with one out. And then, heartbreak: Keller fumbled a scorcher from Hogan Heller, allowing Tabor enough time to round third base and score. Tie game.

The Rangers needed someone to come through and make some outs, and Garza’s slick fielding proved to be just what the doctor ordered. First, he tagged out Peeples in entertaining fashion. Then, for the final out of the inning, after bobbling the gather and missing his chance for another tag out, delivered a dart to first base.

With Jagger Edwards newly on the mound for the Rattlers, the bottom of the seventh inning started out with a lot of juice. After three straight flyouts to the center field warning track, Brooks finally got a ball down, for a double. Gonzalez laid a sacrifice bunt to move Brooks to third, and then Reagan opted to intentionally walk Cooper Burgess, game one’s walk-off hero. Tensions were boiling over, the crowd was on their feet and making a racket. One hit could cement the upset.

Then disaster struck.

Calamity’s conduit that day was the stadium’s PA announcer, who mumbled into the microphone that, “This game has been delayed due to lightning.”

The crowd exploded with boos. The sky was clear, and weather apps showed the storm was moving away from the stadium. But somewhere, at the edge of a 10 mile radius around the stadium, lightning struck. And it left a crowd full of hornet-angry fans 30 minutes to conspire about the origins of the delay. “I bet the Reagan coach did it,” was a common refrain.

After the half-hour moratorium expired, the Rangers’ momentum had slowed, as Keller and Garza both failed to bring Brooks home. That meant Jackson Elizondo, 3 2/3 innings and 61 pitches into a Herculean relief effort, would come back out for a fifth inning after three separate weather delays. He’d allowed just one unearned run to that point.

“I definitely did not realize that I was doing good,” Elizondo said in response to praise of his performance. “I thought I was walking too many guys. (I was) lucky I had my amazing defense behind me to stop the walks from getting in.”

He struck out Andrew Ermis on three straight called strikes, but then hit Beaird on a 3-1 count, and the inning began to snowball.

Coleman doubled on a full count to put two in scoring position. Then Tabor attempted a sacrifice fly to center field, but Wells’ arm was intimidating enough to hold Beaird, a catcher, at third. The Rangers intentionally walked Burcham to load the bases with two outs, when the unthinkable happened.

After a called first strike, Elizondo threw four straight balls to Peeples, walking in the go-ahead run.

Koehl called in Dylan Domel from the bullpen to close out the inning, marking the end of Elizondo’s heroic run. He walked off the field slowly, dejected and teary-eyed, to a standing ovation from players and fans alike.

“I was extremely mad that I walked him,” Elizondo said, “but I knew we had Domel to come in and close it out. So I was not worried, because I knew he was going to get the job done. (We’ve come) back and beat them before, so I knew we could do it once more.”

Elizondo threw 84 pitches that Saturday afternoon, allowing just one earned run in 4 1/3 innings. It was a performance hauntingly reminiscent of Red Sox pitcher Nathan Eovaldi in Game Three of the 2018 World Series, who pitched six shutout innings (97 pitches) before finally allowing a game-winning run in extra innings.

Even as Domel closed out the top of the eighth, battling Heller into a pop out, the comparison seemed apt. But in the final frame, one key difference arose between Eovaldi’s performance and Elizondo’s:

Elizondo got run support.

After Ruff struck out to start the inning, Hodges singled to bring up the top of the lineup. Wells walked on four pitches, leading the Rattlers to insert Chase Bright in relief.

Bright promptly allowed a game-tying base hit from Arguello, as Hodges rounded third and beat the throw home. That throw allowed Wells and Arguello to advance to third and second, respectively. The crowd was buzzing, seeming to sense that the game was on the verge of something spectacular.

After Brooks had managed four straight barrels to center field earlier in the game, Reagan elected to intentionally walk him, bringing Gonzalez to the plate with loaded bases and one out. 

The sophomore catcher, who’d reached base safely just once in his last six plate appearances (including three strikeouts), might well have seemed like a safer matchup than Brooks. But as Santana Moss once said, “Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games.” And with the season on the line, Gonzalez made a big-time play.

The series win was remarkable in several ways. It sent Smithson Valley to the region semifinals for the sixth time and first since 2011. And it ended Reagan’s three-season streak of reaching at least the fourth round. 

The series might have also been the biggest hurdle between the Rangers and the state championships at Dell Diamond, particularly after fellow Region IV member Round Rock swept Lake Travis (Ranked No. 1 in the Diamond Pro/THSB Top 25) this past weekend.

Next up for the Rangers is a showdown with Eagle Pass (who upset La Joya this past weekend) at Northside Field No. 2 in San Antonio. The Eagles have an aptly-named mascot and a wave of momentum, as they’ve won six of their seven playoff games so far.

The teams will play at 7 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, and 1:00 p.m. on Saturday if necessary. The first two games initially sold out early Wednesday morning, but more tickets were released for online purchase here. The series will also be live streamed on Eagle Pass ISD’s YouTube channel.