Panthers win 5-4 on walk-off
By Scott Akanewich
Baseball games can be won in many ways and some are more dramatic than others.
However, when Andon Thomas hit a ground ball to shortstop with one out and runners on the corners in the bottom of the eighth inning it might as well have been a towering home run which provided the walk-off victory.
The fielder’s choice in Liberty Hill’s home district game against Glenn plated the winning run in a 5-4 Panthers victory.
Liberty Hill head coach Steve Hutcherson will certainly take it.
“It’s a big win for us because it puts us in the top four,” said Hutcherson, of his club’s current position in the final playoff spot in the district standings. “But, it wasn’t pretty by any stretch of the imagination.”
After a week off between games which included a trio of intrasquad scrimmages to help iron out wrinkles in the Panthers’ lineup, Hutcherson said he learned a few things about his players that influenced his decisions in the contest – not the least of which was putting senior Jackson Knox on the mound in the fifth inning in relief of senior starter Ryan Rhoden, who hurled four innings, allowing only one earned run on three hits while striking out three.
Knox had only made two other pitching appearances this season – and none since March 5 – but had allowed only one run in eight innings over that span, although Hutcherson said he was confident in putting the right-hander out there after seeing him pitch during the scrimmages.
“We felt good about Jackson going into the game in that situation,” he said. “We know when we put him in, we’re not going to find too much trouble.”
The move paid off in spades for Hutcherson, as Knox posted seven strikeouts in three innings of work, including setting the side down on strikes in the sixth despite allowing single runs in the fifth and seventh innings.
After the Grizzlies had taken a 1-0 first-inning lead, the Panthers plated a pair of runs in the third.
Carson Riley led off with a walk against Glenn starter Harris Holden – a sophomore who has already committed to Texas Christian University – before courtesy runner Ty Maldonado moved to second on a Ryan Leary single.
Thomas laid down a perfectly-executed sacrifice bunt to move the runners to second and third with one out for Knox, who lifted a fly ball to center deep enough to score Maldonado, who was followed home by a diving Leary after the Glenn catcher muffed the throw home, allowing Liberty Hill to take a 2-1 lead.
The visitors tied the score at 2-2 in the fourth before the Panthers again took the lead at 3-2 on a Riley single to score Kash Durkin, who had led off the inning by reaching on an error.
However, the Grizzlies – who entered the game with a 2-17 record on the season and were winless in district play with an 0-6 mark – hung tough and scored single runs off Knox in the fifth and seventh innings.
But, it was Knox who banged a single to left with the Panthers down to their last out in the bottom of the seventh, then advanced to second on a Logan Dyer walk before tying the game on a Kade Neuenschwander double to left.
Connor Sherburn pitched a scoreless eighth, setting up the heroics from the home side in the bottom half of the frame.
Knox went 2-for-3 with a double, a run scored and one batted in at the plate, but it was his performance on the mound which was perhaps his most valuable contribution on the evening.
Despite 15 strikeouts in 11 innings pitched this season, Knox insisted making batters swing and miss isn’t his specialty.
“Really, I’m a pitch-to-contact hitter,” said Knox.
After Holden left the game following a 97-pitch effort over six innings, the Panthers were able to reach his replacement for the tying and winning runs in the seventh and eight innings, respectively.
Knox said it was a relief to have Holden out of the game.
“He was mixing his pitches really well,” he said. “It makes you feel better when a pitcher like that is out of the game.”
Senior shortstop Ryan Leary was confident he and his teammates were getting a proper bead on Harris throughout.
“I think we wanted to get hitting against him,” he said. “Especially the third or fourth time through the lineup.”
Stavinoha was 2-for-4 with a double and an RBI to go with one run batted in each from Thomas, Knox, Neuenschwander and Riley.
Lost in the late-game heroics was the effort of Rhoden, who calmed down after a shaky first inning in allowing only one earned run in four innings to keep the Panthers in the game – something not unnoticed by Hutcherson.
“Ryan’s one of our main guys out there,” he said. “He did a good job keeping the ball down, looked like himself and gave us a chance to win.”