By Will Johnson
LUFKIN – The Lovelady Lions captured the Area Championship by defeating the Shelbyville Dragons 2-0, in a best-of-three series held Thursday and Friday of last week.
The first game of the series began on Thursday, but was completed on Friday after lightning caused the officiating crew to stop the game with one out in the bottom of the sixth inning. The Lions were at bat with the score was tied 1-1 when Mother Nature put the brakes on.
When the game resumed on Friday, the Dragons had Colton Parker on the mound. Parker had stymied the Lovelady batting order on Thursday, but struggled with his control after the restart.
As the bottom of the sixth inning began once again, Parker walked the first two batters he faced. Chad Fulgham drew the first base on balls and then Hunter Murray was intentionally walked.
That brought Lee Holsey to the plate. Holsey was the starting pitcher on Thursday and held the Dragons to only one run on eight hits, but took a no-decision after he was lifted in the top of the sixth.
As Holsey settled into the batter’s box, Parker appeared to regain control and put Holsey into a two strike hole. Holsey managed to work the count to 2-2 and then delivered what turned out to be the game winning RBI as he lined a pitch into centerfield.
Fulgham was moving on contact and came across the plate to make the score 2-1. Parker fanned the next two batters he faced to end the inning and moved the game into the seventh.
After an inning of relief on Thursday, Fulgham returned to the mound on Friday. The first batter he faced was Shelbyville’s Christian Schilder and the Lions’ defense picked up where it left off on Thursday.
Schilder dropped a bunt down the third base line which was fielded by Holsey who charged the ball, scooped it up and in one motion, threw a rocket to first.
The throw beat the speedy Schilder by a step as first baseman Blake Johnson never took his eyes off the ball. Johnson dropped into a stretch which would have made most big leaguers proud as the leather popped to mark the first out.
Fulgham struck out Cole Ferguson for the second out of the inning and coaxed a come backer from Kyle Tindel to end the game and give the Lions the 2-1 win.
Following a 30 minute break between games one and two, the Lions and Dragons were back on the field. Ferguson was on the mound for the Dragons and the hard throwing sophomore brought the heat but was inconsistent with his control.
He struck out Fulgham to open the game and then walked Johnson. Johnson didn’t waste any time on the base paths as Hunter Murray gave a preview of later at bats with a triple to the right center field gap which scored Johnson from first.
Ferguson was able to hold Murray at third as he struck out Holsey, hit Alex McKnight with a pitch and forced Brett Huester to hit into a 6-3 groundout.
The Lions sent Slade Smith to the bump and the lefthander had the Dragons muttering to themselves for six innings as Smith baffled them with a mix of slow curves and off speed pitches.
In the bottom of the first, Smith retired the first two batters he faced and then gave up back-to-back singles to Ferguson and Tindel, before he struck out Daylon Dunn to end the inning.
A quiet second gave way to the third inning which saw Lovelady tack on a second run. Murray led off and reached first on a fielding error. He stole second, moved to third on a sacrifice from McKnight and scampered home after a wild pitch from Ferguson.
With the score now 2-0, Smith continued to frustrate the Shelbyville batters as he sandwiched two walks between two pop-ups and a second strikeout of Dunn to bring the third inning to a close.
The Lions were unable to generate any run support for Smith in the top of the fourth despite Taylor Womack’s double to right. When Smith took the mound in the bottom of the inning he recorded two more strikeouts to bring his total to six, with three innings left to play.
As the fifth inning got underway, Ferguson was nearing the UIL imposed pitch limit and was pulled. Ryan Bailey came on in relief and the Lions pounced.
Johnson led off the inning with a double to right center field and was followed in the batting order by Murray. The senior standout greeted Bailey with a two-run blast over the left center field fence and, just like that, Lovelady led 4-0.
After Holsey was rung up on a swinging third strike, McKnight reached base on an error. Treyton Wilson came in for McKnight as a courtesy runner and moved to second on a passed ball. Huester was hit by a pitch and took first.
Smith followed with a liner into right field which was misplayed and rolled to the fence. On the error, Wilson and Huester both crossed the plate to make the score 6-0.
Smith wound up at third and Logan Lowery came in as a courtesy runner for the pitcher. With Jay Robinson at the plate, Lowery managed to find himself in a run-down. However, the fire had left the Dragons as they could not tag out Lowery before he touched the plate to make it 7-0.
After Robinson struck out, Womack smacked a double to left field and moved to third on a passed ball. A walk to Fulgham and a throwing error allowed Womack to score and by the time Shelbyville recorded the third out, Lovelady had pushed their lead to 8-2.
The Dragons finally got to Smith in the bottom half of the fifth inning. Parker led off and hit a deep fly to center field that Womack just missed with a diving catch. Fortunately, Robinson was there to back him up and held Parker to a single.
Schilder was up next and singled to left. A passed ball allowed the runners to move up and when Ferguson slapped a shot through the infield, Parker and Schilder crossed the dish and cut the Lovelady lead
Tindel struck out and then Dunn followed with a single to left. Just when
it looked like the Dragons might get back in the game, Zach Cook’s shot to short was snared in mid-flight by Murray who doubled up Dunn at second to end the inning.
After the inning ending unassisted double play, Murray led off the top of the sixth. On a 1-0 pitch, Murray timed his swing perfectly and drove Bailey’s pitch almost 400 feet for his second round-tripper of the game.
After the HR, Holsey was hit by a pitch, stole second and moved to third on a throwing error. McKnight and Huester both struck out but Smith lined a pitch up the middle to drive in Holsey from third.
Lowery came in as a courtesy runner and scored on a double from Robinson which knocked Bailey from the game and made the score 11-2.
Following a walk to open the bottom of the sixth, Smith retired the next three batters he faced to send the game into the final inning.
The Lions tacked on three more runs in the top of the seventh as Johnson single to right and then moved to third on back to back passed balls. Murray reached on an infield single, but Johnson was held at third. Holsey took care of that as he singled to right to drive in Johnson and move Murray to second.
McKnight walked to load the bases and then Cole Jones, who had come on in relief, hit Huester to force in Murray from third. Smith was up next and was also hit by a pitch to bring in Holsey to extend the lead to 14-2.
Fulgham relieved Smith in the bottom of the seventh and slammed the door shut on the Dragons as the Lions won game two by a final of 14-2 and the best-of-three series, 2-0.
The two game series sweep sends the Lovelady Lions into the Regional Quarterfinals where they will face the Groveton Indians in a best-of-three series at Madisonville High School. Game one is scheduled for Thursday, May 18 at 7 p.m. Game two is scheduled for Friday, May 19 at 4:30 p.m. and game three, if necessary, will start at high noon on Saturday, May 20.
Will Johnson may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.