LUBBOCK – Nazareth has always been, and will likely always be considered a “basketball” school, at least in terms of athletic reputation.
But it’s hard to argue against what the baseball team accomplished Saturday evening at Lubbock Cooper as a signature athletic moment for the ages.
In the third game of their best-of-three Class 1A region final series with Ira, the Swifts fell behind by 10 runs in the second inning. A 10-run mercy rule loss three innings later seemed far more likely to occur than a return trip to the state tournament.
Three innings later, the Swifts put up seven runs and cut their deficit to a single run. They forced extra innings with a run in the bottom of the seventh, then completed the improbable comeback when Will Young’s sacrifice fly in the bottom of the eighth drove home Braten Bullard with the winning run for a 15-14 victory.
If a script writer had come up with this kind of treatment, a studio might dismiss it as unrealistic and sappy, turning a 12-2 deficit into arguably the greatest moment in the baseball program’s history. But it was as real as it got for first-year Nazareth coach Tyler Goodwin and his team.
“Even at 12-2 we said we were only in the second inning,” Goodwin said. “We get to bat five more times. This ain’t over. You’ve got the pitch rules nowadays, and when you get to game three you’re at the bottom end of your pitching staff.
“I can’t give enough credit to them. In my opinion you just watched the state championship.”
That’s still two games away from now for the Swifts (20-1), who haven’t even played in the state semifinal yet. But in a series surrounded by so much hype, Nazareth and Ira (22-2) lived up to it.
It wasn’t enough that both teams entered the series undefeated with Ira ranked No. 1 and Nazareth No. 2. Each team ended the other one’s winning streak, as Nazareth opened the series with a 3-2 win in game one, and Ira forced that third game with a 7-5 win Saturday.
That seemed like a subplot in comparison to Goodwin Place. Tyler Goodwin, an Ira graduate, was coaching against his father, Toby, Ira’s head coach.
No matter what, a member of the Goodwin family was going to leave Lubbock knowing that he’d be coaching in the state tournament for the first time. For Tyler, that part was bittersweet.
“I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, honestly,” Goodwin said. “You’re talking about the two best teams in the state playing and that’s a story all its own, but you go into a situation like this and it’s hard to talk about. I’ll cry every time.”
But Goodwin, in his first year as a head coach anywhere, will at least have the consolation of a trip to the state tournament. Such a thing didn’t seem possible after two innings of game three.
Nazareth took a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the first on Trent Gerber’s two-run home run to left field. That’s the only lead the Swifts held in the game until the very end.
With one out in the top of the second, Ira began teeing off on Nazareth starter Luke Schulte. The Bulldogs pounded out nine consecutive hits off Schulte, the last of which was a three-run triple by Holden Rios to make it 10-2.
Schulte was pulled one batter later and thanks to the UIL’s pitch count rule, Carson Heiman (who started game two) and Trent Gerber (who started and won game one) were limited in how much they could throw in relief. By the end of the inning it was 12-2, and while Gerber made it through the third, there was a huge question over how the Swifts would close out the game on the mound.
Tyler Goodwin thought the only solution was to put Schulte, who’s normally the catcher, back on the mound to try to gut it out before he hit the 110-pitch mark.
“A kid like Luke has caught two baseball games and then half of this one,” Goodwin said. “I asked him to get back on the mound, you’re up dude. Poor kid hadn’t pitched a whole heck of a lot because my other two guys have been able to get the job done. He struggled the first two innings.”
Schulte pitched the final four innings to get Nazareth through the game. He scattered four hits and gave up two unearned runs.
“I knew we didn’t have any other pitchers available so it was me that had to step up,” Schulte said. “When I came back out there I just had a different mindset. I knew I was taking these batters out. I just told myself these dudes ain’t getting a hit off me no matter what.”
Schulte’s two-run single in the top of the third capped a four-run inning as the Swifts cut the lead to 12-6. But it was the fifth when Nazareth officially got back in the game.
With one out, seven straight Nazareth batters reached base, only two via hit, as they knocked Ira starter Anthony Luna out of the game. Young and Gerber both had RBI singles, but Ira’s three errors which led to six unearned runs were just as big, as the Swifts cut the lead to 14-13.
The Swifts went scoreless in the sixth against Ira freshman reliever Jaren Pena, and after Schulte finished his stint (he threw only 20 pitches to the last seven Ira batters he faced), they were down to their final three outs. With one out, Gerber hit a bloop double to left, then scored on Tanner Birkenfeld’s double to approximately the same place to tie it 14-14.
Birkenfeld was left on base, forcing extra innings. His reward upon returning to the dugout? Pitch the eighth inning after throwing only one-third of an inning all season.
“As the game wore on I figured someone was going to have to make a move pitching-wise,” Birkenfeld said. “Just throwing in the eighth inning in my pitching debut was absolutely nerve-wracking. You just keep your cool, throw strikes and good things are going to happen. We have a great defensive team and you couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Birkenfeld got Luna to pop up to the mound but walked Bryton Partain on four pitches to put the go-ahead run on base. However, Birkenfeld got Jerek Pena to pop out to second and struck out Drew Porter to send the game to the bottom of the eighth still tied.
On the second pitch of the bottom of the eighth, Bullard lined a triple to left, putting the winning run 90 feet from home. With one out, Young hit a fly ball to center which was just deep enough for Bullard to beat the throw home from Zane Allen and send the Swifts to state.
“We had the momentum and I knew if I put it in play we’d get someone around,” Young said. “It was really just put the ball in play and trust our guys to get the job done. Coach Goodwin instilled in us from the start of two-a-days we were going to win no matter what we put our minds to. We’ve done some special things, but nothing tops this for sure.”
Nazareth went to state despite holding the lead for only the briefest of times Saturday. In the second game, Ira took a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the third and stretched it to 6-1 in the fourth thanks in large part to back-to-back two-out errors.
Trailing 7-1 heading into the seventh, the Swifts gave a taste of what was to come by rallying for four runs in the inning, thanks in part to two Ira errors. A three-base throwing error put Schulte on third with two outs and the Swifts trailing 7-5.
But Heiman lined out to Jerek Pena at short to end the game and force game three.
Albany’s big bats humble Clarendon
LUBBOCK – A good start to the series for the Clarendon Broncos couldn’t erase the roar the Albany Lions showed at the plate in a Class 2A region semifinal series at Lubbock Christian University.
After taking an early lead over Albany, Clarendon fell victim to an Albany offensive onslaught in Thursday’s first game, as the Lions closed it with 10 straight runs. That stretched into Saturday’s game two, where Albany’s unanswered run streak for the series stretched to 17, dooming the Broncos to the end of their season in a 16-3 six-inning run-rule defeat marking a series sweep.
Clarendon finished the season 21-7.
The Broncos opened the series strong, taking a 4-1 lead in the first game. But Albany (21-4) scored the final 10 runs to win 11-4.
That continued two days later, as the Lions jumped out to a 7-0 lead in the third inning, pretty much sealing Clarendon’s fate.
“I just think momentum’s big in any sport and any game,” Clarendon coach Yancy Molloy said. “Especially when you’re dealing with high school kids, who live off the hype. They know when things are rolling they can go, and it’s hard to fight back from adversity. We’ve been in those spots, and today wasn’t our day.”
The Broncos never seriously threatened after that, getting on the board with an RBI single by Easton Fausto in the bottom of the third to cut it to 7-1. But they got no closer.
Albany got to Clarendon starter Harrison Howard for 11 runs in four innings, and the Broncos avoided a run-rule loss in five on Tyler Harper’s RBI single in the fourth to cut it to 11-2.
But Albany scored five runs in the top of the sixth to invoke the run rule. Zane Waggoner blasted a grand slam to deep left-center off Clarendon reliever Aiden Caudle to invoke the run rule and make the outcome a formality.