Unearned runs hurt Panthers’ playoff hopes

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By Scott Akanewich
Sports Editor

Close baseball games are decided by the slimmest of margins, with little room for mistakes.

Unfortunately for Liberty Hill on Tuesday, a pair of unearned runs allowed in the first inning in its home district contest against Georgetown was enough to doom them to a 2-1 defeat to the Eagles.

As was the case too many times down the stretch of the district schedule this season, Liberty Hill was done in by its inability to win close games, despite string performances from its starting pitchers.

According to Liberty Hill head coach Steve Hutcherson, dropping close contests has proved to be a big obstacle for his club to overcome.

“It’s tough when you lose so many one-run games,” said Hutcherson. “Everything’s been so tight and we’ve essentially been in every game.”

On this night, it was Conner Sherburn’s turn to have another solid effort go for naught after the junior right-hander allowed only those two unearned runs over five innings on three hits before being relieved by sophomore Logan Bailey, who pitched two scoreless frames.

The occasion marked Liberty Hill’s third consecutive 2-1 loss and fourth overall by a single marker in district play, although it certainly hasn’t been the Panthers’ pitching which has caused issues.

Sherburn pitched out of trouble in the first after giving up back-to-back singles to start the game, but didn’t help his own cause by committing an error in the second on an errant throw to first on a bunt, putting runners on the corners with no outs following a leadoff single to begin the inning.

Georgetown’s Andon Petty then grounded to Panthers shortstop Ryan Leary, who hesitated for a split-second before throwing home to catcher Garrett Neeley, which allowed Nick Silva to score the first run of the game.

But, that wasn’t all.

After the throw got past Neeley, the Eagles’ Rowdy Hoadley also scored on the same sequence when Sherburn failed to cover home on the play for a 2-0 Georgetown lead.

Still, though, Sherburn managed to limit the damage by getting a groundout to first baseman Kash Durkin to end the inning with runners left stranded on first and second.

However, after Sherburn retired the side in order in the top of the third, the sloppy defensive play continued in the bottom half of the inning – only this time by the visitors – when Leary reached on an error on a grounder to third, then advanced to second on a passed ball.

Andon Thomas then came through with a single to center, which plated Leary with a head-first slide just beating the relay home to make it a 2-1 game with still only one out.

But, Jackson Knox grounded into a double play to end the inning and the threat without any further scoring.

In the meantime, Sherburn had settled down to set the Eagles down in order in the third, fourth and fifth innings to keep the Panthers in the contest.

Bailey entered the game to begin the sixth despite Sherburn having retired nine straight Georgetown batters and having thrown only 64 pitches, but Hutcherson said the move was based on the fact the Eagles were about to face his starter for the third time in the game.

“They were flipping their lineup over,” he said. “So, we wanted to get Logan in there.”

The move paid dividends as Bailey hurled a pair of shutout frames despite an Eagles runner advancing to third only to be stranded in the sixth.

While all this was going on, Silva was weaving a gem of his own for the visitors, having allowed only two hits though six innings before taking the mound in the bottom of the seventh with the Panthers down to their final three outs.

After Durkin grounded out and Chase Maxwell went down swinging, Jack Stavinoha drew a two-out walk on a 3-2 pitch to bring Neeley to the plate with the game on the line.

But, that’s when Georgetown went to its bullpen and sidearm-slinging right-hander Wade Denton was called on to seal the deal and that’s just what he did in getting Neeley to strike out on a 3-2 pitch to end the game and seriously damage the Panthers’ playoff hopes in the process.

Liberty Hill popped out seven times on the evening on the way to getting only two hits – a fact Hutcherson attributed to the conditions, which included a strong breeze to encourage big cuts to a particular part of the ballpark.

“We were too anxious with our swings tonight,” he said. “Especially with a good wind blowing out to left – I think some of out guys though if they could just get the ball in the air.”

Despite the loss, Liberty Hill (19-11-1, 8-5) can still make the playoffs with a win in the regular-season finale against Glenn on Friday, coupled with a Rouse loss to Marble Falls, at which point the Panthers and Raiders would have a one-game playoff to determine the postseason berth after the squads split the season series.

As for his side’s struggles in tight games, Hutcherson took the blame squarely on his own shoulders.

“One-run games are lost by coaches – that’s what I told our players after the game,” he said. “So, I need to figure out what I need to do better for us to be more successful.”

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