WACO — Harker Heights couldn’t fight back from the brink any longer.
After nearly a month of narrowly avoiding playoff elimination, time simply ran out on the Knights’ ability to deny the inevitable.
Mansfield pounced on freshman pitcher Tyler Torres in a six-run third inning and Heights saw its season end with a 9-5 loss in Game 3 of the best-of-three bi-district playoff series Saturday afternoon at Waco ISD’s Veterans Field No. 2.
“We’ve been on edge for almost a month it seems like, (laughs) and the kids have battled and they’ve given effort, we just ran out of time today,” Heights head coach Glenn Cunningham said. “We just kind of got backed up a little bit and we couldn’t fight our way all the way back on that one.”
Despite trailing 9-1 before their second trip through the lineup, the Knights (16-16) didn’t lose faith, not after putting together a nine-run fifth inning a week before in an 11-6 win over rival Shoemaker.
“We came out, left everything we had on the field,” Knights senior catcher Tyler Keller said. “When it was 9-1, we didn’t fall down, we didn’t lay over. We came back and tried to do everything we could and we just came up short.”
Unable to get a grasp on the strike zone, Heights’ bats were held quiet by Mansfield starter Lane Meyer, who scattered three hits over the first five innings.
“One pitch would be (a strike) and he’d throw the next pitch (to the same spot) and (the umpire) wouldn’t call it — we didn’t know where the strike zone was,” Keller said.
But they awoke in the sixth when Cody Plagens (2 for 4) and Torres (2 for 4) singled to start the frame, Caleb Dean walked on four pitches to load the bases and Keller blooped an RBI single to shallow center field to chase Meyer.
A balk by Tigers reliever Tyler Greer allowed Torres to score, Heights sophomore Michael Rae Zapata (2 for 3) singled in Dean and pinch runner Kyle Skelton scored on a sacrifice fly by Willie Lopez.
“When it got 9-1, I think we all knew that our season was probably over, but man, our kids … continued to play hard and fight and I think that showed why they were here,” Cunningham said.
Torres first ran into trouble in the second inning when he loaded the bases with two walks on nine pitches before Tigers leadoff hitter Hunter Hargrove tripled to the right-field corner to clear themfor a 3-0 lead. A pop-out to shortstop allowed Torres to get out without any more damage but Mansfield still had a little left for him.
The next inning, following a five-pitch walk to Clint Harris, the Tigers rolled out four straight RBI hits when Ryan Brooks scored Harris with an RBI triple, Connor Hall had a ground-rule double to score Brooks and force Cunningham to replace Torres with Friday starter Caleb Dean.
The bleeding didn’t stop there, though, as opposing Mansfield starter Lane Meyer tripled home Hall and then scored when Reid Petty reached when a comebacker deflected off Dean’s glove. After two quick outs, Hargrove tripled again to score Petty and Tyler Greer singled to drive him to go up 9-0.
The Knights responded in the top of the third when Sluss sent a 1-1 pitch to the center field wall for a double and Plagens traded places with an RBI-double down the right field line.
“We knew today if we got in trouble early, we’d have to piece a game together and I thought our pitchers did what they could to try and (do that),” Cunningham said. “But Mansfield was good today, they swung the bat really well, and they’re strong kids and when they hit it ... they knock the snot out of it.”