HOUSTON — With each step he walked off, Jon Franz felt the baseball-sized bruise pound on the inside of his left calf.
But in the midst of a rare three-strikeout night and after traveling more than 100 miles south just to find a place to play, the Salado senior wasn’t going to let the pain get the best of him.
On the next pitch, Franz guessed right on a fastball inside from Elkhart reliever Jacob Cheatham and ripped it deep to short to score fellow senior Bryce Martin from third base for the go-ahead run and legged out the throw for an infield RBI single.
“I had to put the bat on the ball, and hopefully that runner would score,” Franz said. “I guess I put it in the perfect spot.”
Franz’s hit was followed by an RBI single from junior Cole Haag as No. 2 Salado scored twice in the top of the sixth to pull out a 4-2 win over defending 2A state semifinalist Elkhart in their displaced Region III-2A semifinal Saturday afternoon at Houston Memorial’s Mustang Field.
“We had some seniors step up today ... every time we needed something done to really give us a chance to win, it seems like it was a senior that didn’t want to lose this game,” Salado head coach Chad Krempin said.
The winner-take-all game, originally scheduled as a three-game series in Franklin, but rain washed out Friday’s game and forced the teams to relocate 125 miles south to Houston. The Eagles (32-5-1), who set a single-season record for wins in a season with the victory, advance to play area rival Troy in the region finale at a time and place to be determined.
While Franz and several others got it done at the plate, Eagles junior ace Casey Frazier was busy grinding out innings on the mound, surrendering two unearned runs while striking out eight in a 105-pitch complete game.
“We’re just grinding right now, we’re going from game to game — I’ve been saying this a lot: ‘Survive and advance,’” Frazier said.
Frazier (10-0), winner of his last 23 starts, scattered six hits and seemed to get stronger with runners on, stranding six runners over the final four innings.
“Sometimes it happens like that,” Frazier laughed. “I’d rather have no runners on and pitch from the windup, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do and get the job done.”
It all goes back to the Eagles’ ability to grind out victories, even when things aren’t going their way.
“That’s kind of been our motto from the beginning, we just come out and grind every day at practice, in the weight room, we’re on the grind,” Martin said. “After the game, we say ‘Grind’ because that’s what this is, it’s a grind.”
Martin was 2 for 3 with the go-head run while fellow senior Marshall Mann was 2 for 4 with a two-out RBI-single in the top of the first inning and Frazier was also 2 for 4 with a pair of doubles.
Things nearly fell apart in the bottom of the fourth inning, though.
Salado junior second baseman Britton Hawes couldn’t handle a hard liner and Elkhart’s Jacob Cheatham drilled a single to left to put two runners on with no outs.
After a balk moved both Elk runners into scoring position, Frazier struck out senior cleanup hitter Levi Smith looking on three pitches. Smith accounted for three of Frazier’s eight strikeouts, two looking.
Frazier nearly got out of it when he struck out Jackson Adair on the next at-bat, but the last breaking ball bounced in the dirt and past catcher Haag to allow Cole Bridges to score from third on the play. Opposing starting pitcher Jordan White then laid down a bunt down the first base side that Frazier couldn’t handle cleanly and Cheatham scored to tie the game at 2-2 before Frazier forced back-to-back fly-outs to centerfield to get out without any more damage.
Salado responded in the top of the fifth when senior designated hitter Coby Giniewicz, in his first game back from a broken arm suffered three weeks ago, tied it at 2-all with a two-out double into left field to plate courtesy runner Jake Bloomer, who was on after Haag was hit-by-pitch.
“We showed some nerves today,” Krempin said, “so hopefully we can find a way to put those behind us in a big game a little better.”