Panthers defeat Cedar Park 3-1 behind Milam

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By Scott Akanewich
Sports Editor

One thing Blaze Milam has plenty of is confidence.

So, when Liberty Hill’s freshman right-hander found out he was getting the ball in the Panthers’ biggest game of the season against Cedar Park on Friday, he did what he always does – take it in stride.

Milam pitched a complete game, allowing only one run on three hits while striking out four in a 3-1 home victory against the No. 8 Timberwolves to help keep his team’s playoff chances alive.

Although he did admit to some nerves in the the buildup.

“I was a little nervous yesterday,” said Milam, who boosted his recorded on the season to 5-0 with a 1.84 earned-run-average and 32 strikeouts in 41 2/3 innings. “But, then I woke up today and was ready to go.”

The only trouble Milam ran into was in the third when Cedar Park’s Darian Hsu led off with a single and then scored on a triple down the left-field line off the bat of Cade Haught that just eluded the glove of a diving Chase Maxwell and rolled to the fence to gave the visitors a 1-0 lead.

However, Milam was able to limit the damage to just the single marker by getting a groundout and a fielder’s choice to end the inning after having surrendered a base on balls in between which left runners on the corners.

On the mound for the Timberwolves was No. 1 starter Adam Vaughn, who held the Panthers without a hit through the opening four innings until Garrett Neeley led off the fifth with a double to left which Cedar Park’s Trea Verver made a diving attempt for, but couldn’t come up with, allowing Neeley to make it to second.
Ryan Leary then singled to center and drove in courtesy runner Ty Maldonado to tie the score at 1-1.

Liberty Hill’s Andon Thomas then hit a potential inning-ending double-play ball which was botched by the Timberwolves, leaving runners on first and second with one out for Jackson Knox.

But, the second time was a charm for the Cedar Park infield, as they successfully turned a twin killing on the second time of asking when Knox grounded to shortstop Ryder Hernandez, who started a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning.

After stranding runners in scoring position in three of the first four innings, it was a relief to finally push one across against Vaughn, said Liberty Hill head coach Steve Hutcherson.

“It was a tough night to hit,” said Hutcherson, of the blustery conditions in the mid-50s and a steady 15-mph wind. “Earlier in the game, we felt like we were just a tick late against him.”

Milam needed only 15 pitches to retire the side in order in the top of the sixth before the Panthers’ offense went back to work on Vaughn in the bottom half of the frame.

Logan Dyer worked Vaughn for a full-count walk, then moved to second on a Kade Neuenschwander sacrifice bunt before Jack Stavinoha singled to center, scoring Dyer, then taking second himself after the throw home got away from the catcher.

With the score 2-1, Kash Durkin lined a double to left to score Stavinoha for a 3-1 advantage before Brody Blay struck out and Neeley flied out to end the inning.

Milam – who had only needed 79 pitches to get through the first six innings – then strode to the mound to close the deal and that’s exactly what he did, getting the first two Cedar Park hitters to ground out, which brought Trey Hibbetts to the plate as the Timberwolves were down to their last out.

With the count 1-2, Milam thought he had struck Hibbetts out to end the game and began walking off the mound only to realize it had been called a ball to even the count at 2-2.

No worries, as he gathered his composure and dropped a curveball on Hibbetts, who swung and missed for the final out and victory.

“I knew he couldn’t hit it,” said Milam of throwing a breaking ball in that situation.

Milam said the pressure on him lessened going out for the seventh after his teammates had provided him with a cushion in the bottom of the sixth.

“It made it a lot easier for me,” he said. “Because I knew I could just go out and make my pitches.”

Not even the windy conditions could fluster Milam on this night – in fact, he said the steady breeze actually helped him.

“When the wind blows toward first, it helps my slider move more,” said Milam. “When it blows toward third, my change-up breaks in on right-handed hitters.”

As for his ability to remain poised under pressure, he said he simply relies on self-belief in such situations.

“I think having confidence leads to relaxation on the mound,” said Milam. “Also, I knew I needed to keep the ball low and make them hit ground balls.”

Hutcherson said critical to Milam’s success is the fact he doesn’t get carried away with himself regardless of how he feels inside.

“Blaze does a really good job of pitching with emotion without letting it control him,” he said. “For a young guy like him to be in control like that speaks a lot to his maturity not only as a player, but as a person.”

Liberty Hill (18-9-1, 6-4) remained in fifth place in the district standings despite the victory, as both Rouse and Georgetown won their games to join Cedar Park at 7-3 in league play with Leander on top at 7-2 after the Lions’ home game against Marble Falls was postponed and moved to Saturday.

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