By Joseph Garcia
Pitching, hitting and defense all came together in concert March 28 for the Liberty Hill Panthers, much to the dismay of the visiting Gatesville Hornets.
Dating back to March 5, the Panthers have played 12 games and have come out on top 11 times, completely turning their season around after a 0-8 start.
Last Thursday, Liberty Hill dominated Gatesville with junior Dane Rumley on the mound, who threw a complete-game shutout. He allowed just four hits and struck out 10 batters, while the Panthers put up 10 runs on nine hits.
The Panthers 10-run ruled the Hornets in six innings, winning on a walk-off RBI double by Kannon Prior that ended the game 10-0, moving Liberty Hill to 4-0 in District 8-3A and 14-9 overall.
“We were rolling on all cylinders,” said Liberty Hill Coach Mike Kristan. “It was kind of fun to look up and see different kids doing a bunch of stuff. We played pretty good baseball. We’re pretty talented and we’ve got a few guys that have played enough to be pretty good. We’re getting a lot of kids contributing in (big ways).”
After a walk by Prior and a double from Tyler Barrows, the two came in to score on an error with Jason Reeves at the plate to put Liberty Hill up 2-0 in the second inning.
Following a 1-2-3 inning, with Rumley striking out the final batter in the third, the Panthers added another run in the bottom half of the inning. Garrett Cunningham smoked a double to left field and Mason Baty plated him with a single to left, giving Liberty Hill a 3-0 advantage.
Rumley fanned two more batters in the top of the fourth before Liberty Hill sustained a two-out rally in the bottom.
With Barrows on second after a single and a stolen base, Tristan Heidelberg missed a home run off the center field wall by just a couple of feet, instead crushing an RBI double for a 4-0 lead.
Colby Schmidt then drew a walk and Tyler Vickers replaced him on the base pads to courtesy run. Liberty Hill scored one batter later on a single by Austin Zamarripa past the reach of the Gatesville shortstop and Vickers came in on a passed ball to put his team up 6-0.
After Rumley struck out the side in the fifth, Spencer Pennington scored on a sacrifice grounder off the bat of Prior to make the score 7-0.
“The big thing is we made a few changes in the lineup and they responded to that,” Kristan explained of the offense picking up. “The coolest thing about this year is that they just do the things we ask them to do. They are coachable and that makes things a lot easier. So, we’re excited about that.”
The crowd certainly became excited after the defensive play of the game came in the sixth inning when the Panthers were trying to preserve the shutout after the first two Gatesville batters got on base with a single and a double.
Following Rumley’s 10th strike out of the game, Heidelberg caught a fly ball and showed off his arm with a tremendous heave to Schmidt down the third base line, keeping the Hornet base runner at bay.
Heidelberg, however, topped himself the very next play.
With two on and two out, a Gatesville batter hit a stinging line drive to center field that carried just enough for Heidelberg to dive head first and get his (brand new) glove underneath the sinking ball, just inches before it hit the ground. The highlight play kept the shutout intact and came as a surprise even to him.
“I actually got that glove on Tuesday and opened it up maybe three or four hours before our game,” Heidelberg said. “I decided to use it and caught two fly balls with it in that game (at Lampasas). That one, I was going to take it off the one-hop and try to get the runner that was on second, but it was just hit so hard that it kind of stayed in the air long enough. I thought ‘if I try to take it off the hop it’s going to short-hop me’ so I took two steps in and just dove for it and came up with it. I got completely under it and it just slipped into the glove. I was surprised.”
With a 7-0 lead heading into the bottom of the sixth, the Panthers looked to end things early.
Heidelberg was the first batter up and with his adrenaline pumping from his plays in the field; he struck out, but did not give up on the play and made it to first on a passed ball and a poor throw to first base.
Schmidt followed with a walk and Zamarripa loaded the bases with an infield single. Two batters later, cleanup man Baty hit a single, scoring two runs and making the total 9-0.
The game ended on Prior’s RBI double in the gap for a 10-0 win in six innings, but the Panthers are not taking their foot off the pedal any time soon.
“I wouldn’t say a win like this relaxed us; it just kind of set us into a rhythm,” Heidelberg said. “I think a win like this is good for us because it shows that we can dominate teams like this.”
Liberty Hill’s next opponent is against Llano at home on Friday, April 5, at 7 p.m. The game will mark the halfway point on the district schedule and Coach Kristan has his team exactly where they want to be right now.
He said the team is playing with a methodical and patient approach at the plate to go along with solid pitching and excellent defense. Kristan hopes they keep it up.
“Those kinds of approaches are fun to watch because they listen and then they do,” he said. “Hopefully we can play like this for about two more months.”