Baseball falls in state semifinal bout

Rockwall-Heath ends Rangers’ historic playoff run


Jackson Posey

As his fellow seniors say their final on-field goodbyes, shortstop Ryan Ruff (No. 2) fights back tears. Baseball lost to Rockwall-Heath in the state semifinals on Friday, 8-4.

Jackson Posey, Sports Director

On Friday, baseball took the field under a clear sky for the first time since early May; ominous, dark clouds were nowhere to be seen.

But after three weeks of inclement weather, it wasn’t the sky raining on the Rangers’ parade – it was their opponent. Rockwall-Heath took a two-run lead in the top of the second inning and never looked back, winning 8-4. The Hawks will play Keller on Saturday for the Class 6A state title.

The game marked Smithson Valley’s third appearance in the state tournament, and first since 2005. Rockwall-Heath, meanwhile, was making its second appearance after winning the state title in 2012.

It didn’t take long for the Hawks to take control of the game. Their offense jumped on Ranger pitcher Brandon Taylor early and often, handing him his first pitching loss of the season.

The Heath offense racked up eight hits and five earned runs in Taylor’s two-plus innings pitched. Both of those figures represent season highs for hitters facing Taylor, who entered the weekend having yet to allow more than three earned runs in a game all season.

Meanwhile, Heath pitcher Baylor Baumann dominated early on, touching 90 mph several times and pitching three three-up, three-down innings in the Rangers’ first four frames.

Jackson Elizondo began warming in the bullpen during the top of the second inning. But after allowing four hits and a run-scoring fielder’s choice in the top of the second inning, Taylor returned to the mound for the top of the third.

He made early progress, but couldn’t get a called strike three: a two-strike liner to center, a full-count walk and a hard single past Cameron Hodges loaded the bases. With no outs, Kaston Mason smacked a hard grounder through the left side of the infield, scoring a run and knocking Taylor out of the game.

The first inherited runner scored on a fielder’s choice (which was nearly a double play). The second scored on a miscommunication in shallow left field, during which Ryan Ruff and Kasen Wells watched Garrett Brooks slide for the ball a second too late.

But Elizondo ended the rally there. He struck out Karson Krowka, swinging, and induced a pop out to John Garza to strand runners on first and third.

Elizondo ate 3 2/3 innings for the Rangers, allowing four hits, two walks and three runs (all unearned), while striking out three. He threw 68 pitches, in a performance vaguely reminiscent of his heroic, 84-pitch relief effort against Reagan earlier this postseason.

The Ranger offense’s first crooked number came in the bottom of the third inning. First, Christian Keller drove a liner up the middle for a single for the Rangers’ first hit of the night. Then Baumann walked Ruff on four pitches. The Smithson Valley student section rose to their feet, and the surrounding crowd swelled with emotion; momentum was finally in their hands.

An errant throw by Baumann allowed Hodges to reach safely, loading the bases for the top of the order.

With a full count, Wells launched a long fly ball to centerfield. It didn’t have quite enough juice to fly 407 feet – the distance to the center field wall at Dell Diamond – but was still sufficient to advance all three runners.

Tim Arguello‘s sacrifice grounder brought home Ruff, and Baumann hit David DeHoyos on a full count to put runners on the corners. But Brooks grounded out to end the inning.

It was certainly a fruitful frame for the Rangers, who cut the Hawks’ lead to 5-2. But the team’s overall offensive energy fizzled quickly: they failed to reach base safely in the fourth and fifth innings.

That inning came on the heels of a surprise power outage in the top of the sixth; for about a minute, the field lights shut off, leaving only phone flashlights, electronic advertisements and the Smithson Valley student section’s neon-colored construction vests to illuminate the stadium.

The power zapped from the stadium lights – presumably by some automatic timer, which may not have been reset after the day’s earlier games ran long – seemed to go straight into the Hawks’ bats. Elizondo returned to a 2-0 count, and finished that disjointed plate appearance by throwing two straight balls to walk Zach Rike.

Hodges and Ruff nearly turned two against Caleb Hoover, but Ruff’s throw was off-target and pulled DeHoyos off the bag, allowing a run to score. Then Jonny Lowe ripped a two-run double to left field, knocking Elizondo out of the game. (An earlier error by Ruff rendered all three runs “unearned,” but the scoreboard doesn’t care about ERA.)

Dylan Domel came in to relieve Elizondo, and it didn’t take long for him to make his presence felt. Lowe got greedy on a passed ball, trying to round third and score from second, but Gonzalez found the ball and flipped it home in plenty of time to make the tag. (The runner slid late and got a face full of leather, losing his helmet in the process, but an umpire diffused the situation before emotions could boil over.)

With two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning, the Rangers nearly kick-started another rally of their own, as Baumann walked two and Ethan Gonzalez eked out an infield hit. But Baumann mowed down Keller, who swung on three pitches (fouling off the first), to escape the inning with another goose egg on the scoreboard.

And so, in the bottom of the sixth inning, the Rangers trailed 8-2. Then they stared their season’s end in the face and said, “not yet.”

Baumann, who was nearly pulled in the sixth inning, plunked Ruff with the first pitch of the inning. Then, on the inning’s second pitch, Hodges blooped a single into shallow right field.

Wells strolled to the plate next, and popped the ball high into shallow left field. A miscommunication allowed the ball to drop, but Hodges was thrown out at second, cementing the play as an example of the rare, pop up variety of a fielder’s choice. Ruff scored on the play, narrowing the lead to five runs.

Arguello reached on an error, putting two on with one out. Wells advanced to third, thanks to an error on a pickoff attempt. Then DeHoyos lifted a fly ball to left field, which initially appeared catchable but dropped just in front of a diving Rike. Wells scored, and Arguello advanced to second.

All of a sudden, though, the rally died. On five pitches, Brooks struck out swinging, leaving the game in Gonzalez’s hands. But on three pitches, Gonzalez did the same as his predecessor in the lineup.

And just like that, Rockwall-Heath won, 8-4. Smithson Valley’s season was over, and it officially became time for the seniors to move on to their respective futures. But many aren’t ready to go.

“I wish it could last longer,” Garza, a senior, said after the game. “I love (all) 22, 23 guys on this team. And I wish it could last longer, but that’s just how this was. At least we went out with a bang, and came all the way here after being nobodies for a good few years. So at least we put this team back on the map.”

It was a somber moment for the whole team, although many are trying to look at the bright side.

“In all honesty, I just feel for all my senior friends right now, because I’ve been tight with those guys since the beginning,” Wells, a junior, said. “It’s just tough seeing them (like this, because) this is their last game.

“But we can’t be too hard on ourselves, because we made it this far, you know? I mean, (we’re) one of the few teams that’s done it here. So I mean, it’s a big deal, and I hope that after a little bit of soaking tonight that they realize that and they get their heads back on top of things.”

For many players, stepping away from the team will be a challenging experience. And not just because baseball season is over, but because baseball season with these people is over.

“We’ve really come together this season, and that’s what I’m gonna miss most,” Garza said. “The chemistry and everyday practices. Always messing around with each other and just always having each other’s backs, and getting on each other no matter the situation.”

The Rangers will return a significant amount of talent next season, including the top third of the lineup (Wells, Arguello, DeHoyos). And so, even after Friday’s loss, the championship window is still open.

“I told our younger kids, (this playoff run is) something to build on,” head coach Chad Koehl said. “We gotta come back stronger, and our goal is to get back here. And that’s always been our goal, but, yeah. There’s some talent there, but more than anything there’s some great kids there. And they know how to fight, and they know how to compete.”

For now, though, the time is nigh to reflect on this season, and how far the team came. From unranked in the preseason to a state semifinal berth and a top 10 national ranking, the Rangers pulled together a rock solid season.

“I’ve talked all year about our guys having focus and character, and in the state tournament, you go down five runs, I think it took focus and character to keep us there,” Koehl said. “You know, (our players) competed, all night long. They never quit, and I knew they wouldn’t.

“It’s tough (to lose), it’s hard, but it’s not easy to get here, I’m gonna tell you that. It’s not easy to get here, (but) our kids did, and I’m proud of ‘em for it, and I’m proud of ‘em for winning Region Four.”