A full game of baseball, or any sport for that matter, very rarely comes down to just one play, let alone a whole series swinging on one moment in time.
The Sealy Tiger baseball club, and a little more specifically Hunter Kelley, accomplished a feat close to that in their meeting with the Taylor Ducks in the area round of the state tournament. The expected storm conditions of the weekend pushed the start times of the games up and moved a doubleheader to Friday with a third game set for Saturday, if needed.
Sealy served as the away team and got right out on the board with a pair of runs to kick off the game. Taylor responded with a trio of runs to take a lead and shift the momentum to its side. The Tigers tied the game only for the Ducks to take it back and add onto it going into the sixth.
Senior Hunter Kelley was the one on the mound pulling double duty while hitting for himself in the lineup and remarked how he was doing his best to stay in the moment and keep his team within reach.
“I had to stay focused and keep battling and keep the team in it as long as I can,” he said.
He was able to minimize the damage and allow his teammates to string together some hits which turned into a tie game heading into the seventh and final regulation inning.
“Scrappy is definitely the right word for Game 1,” said head coach Dane Bennett. “Both teams gained momentum and lost momentum throughout that game.”
The swinging pendulum was near the middle with the tie game getting late, but Kelley was due to hit second in the top half of the seventh and would soon take the momentum with one fell swoop. With one out and nobody on base, he finally saw a pitch heading toward the middle of the plate as opposed to the outer half where he had been pitched all game. Kelley loaded up and connected with the pitch, sending it far into the outfield, making the defenders carry back as far as they could go.
“When the ball first left the bat, I thought it was going to be a fly out,” recounted Bennett. “But as I saw the ball get higher and higher, I knew the ball had a chance with how the wind was carrying. When the ball went over the fence, a rush of excitement and adrenaline came went through my body. Two weeks in a row, no better way for a game to end than for our starting senior pitcher to get the hit that allows our team to take the lead to win the game.”
Teammates came spilling out of the dugout to greet the man who changed the game’s trajectory, although his mindset soon returned to taking care of business; “My team showed me a lot of love but I still knew that I had to finish the game,” said Kelley.
The senior hurler returned to the mound and surrendered a walk but then retired the next three batters to finalize the first game in favor of the Tigers and shift plenty of good feelings to their side.
With one more win, Sealy would advance by taking the best-of-three series, but Kelley knew it would not come easily.
“We had most of the momentum, but we knew we had to come out and put them away and not wait around,” he said.
That lack of waiting around was emphasized by seven runs over the first two innings, staking claim to a 7-3 lead with the Tigers serving as the home team this time.
Garret Zaskoda, the Game 2 starter, and Kelley were the ones credited with driving in Sealy’s two first-inning runs to erase a solo home run from Taylor’s Cole Harms. After Clay Roberts singled in Joseph Teague in the second, Tyler Hennessey drew a walk to reload the bases for Zaskoda who helped his own cause by lifting a sacrifice fly to score a run and move Roberts to third.
Kelley was then intentionally walked to load the bases once again, this time with Arturo Hernandez striding to the plate. The senior, who caught both games of the doubleheader, promptly cleared the bases with double, emphatically putting Sealy ahead by four runs still in the early stages, but those fireworks were a delight to Bennett’s eyes.
“Our bats have come alive and it is nice to see,” he said. “That has been the missing piece for us to be a very, very dangerous team. They are starting to get that swagger back at the plate and 1-9 we are all seeing the ball very well.”
That helped the Tigers cruise to a 13-3 lead after a six-run fourth where Chaplin Moore and Teague collected RBI singles before Roberts was hit with a pitch and Hennessey reached on an error. Roberts and Hennessey then executed a double steal with the latter breaking for second and the former reaching home on the throw down the middle of the field.
That margin was enough to clinch the game and series and secure the third Area Championship over the last five years and now sets up a meeting with the Liberty Hill Panthers, the third-ranked team in the most recent Baseball Coaches Association poll.
Liberty Hill is another team Sealy met on the football field and will re-meet on the baseball diamond and Coach Bennett spoke to that rekindling.
“Any time you play a team that you lost to in a big playoff game in football and get a chance to play them again in another sport always brings heightened anticipation and heightened adrenaline to want to get after them,” he noted. “What we have to understand, though, is that these are two totally different sports with different players that weren't part of that football game. It is exciting to get a chance to play Liberty Hill in baseball because we have earned the right to be able to play a really good program in the third round of the playoffs … Have to beat the best to be the best.”
That Regional Quarterfinal matchup will be played at The Yard in Cameron with Game 1 set for Thursday at 6 p.m. with Game 2 Friday at 5 p.m. and Game 3 scheduled after that if necessary.
Kelley added that to play a part in a historic program’s history is certainly a memory he won’t soon forget.
“It’s special and I’m glad I could be a part of it,” he said. “When it’s playoff time, it is time to bear down and play good baseball. You either win or go home.”