LORENA — Kyle Randall remained poised and positive.
The Harker Heights senior pitcher held a one-run lead, but the bases were loaded around him. He couldn’t have imagined what happened next any better.
After throwing a first-pitch ball, Randall struck out Mansfield two-hole batter Connor Hall in his next three pitches.
“That last (strikeout) feels unbelievable,” Randall said. “It’s probably the highlight of my senior year, the highlight of my baseball career.”
The Knights plated two runs in the first inning, Randall struck out eight and Harker Heights won its Region I-5A bi-district playoff series opener 2-1 over Mansfield on Thursday at Lorena.
“It was such a great game for our kids. They played so well. But, the whole key is, they stepped up when it was time,” said Heights coach Glenn Cunningham. “Kyle, you can’t say enough about his pitching performance — he threw a great ballgame, (we) played great defense behind him.”
Game 2 of the best-of-three series is tonight at 7:30, also at Lorena. Game 3, if necessary, is Saturday at Waco ISD’s Veterans’ Field No. 2 at noon.
Harker Heights (16-13) scored its two runs in the first inning after Robby Sluss and Cody Plagens both walked to lead off the game. Sluss scored when Tyler Torres reached on a single that Mansfield shortstop Connor Hall could not field. Plagens scored on a one-out RBI groundout by Tyler Keller.
Mansfield (17-13) scored in the bottom of the fifth and kept the pressure up, getting one runner on in the sixth before loading the bases in the bottom of the seventh, but Randall held on to give the Knights their fourth-straight win.
“It was a crazy inning. I just tried to come out in the same mindset I came out with the six before that,” Randall said. “I tried to keep my mind straight. I didn’t once get down on myself or get down on my teammates. I knew that if I kept pitching the ball well, they would back me up and that we would ultimately come out with the victory.”
Randall walked the first batter he faced in the seventh inning. The second batter reached on an error by Knights’ right-fielder Reggie Thomas.
Then, the Heights defense stepped up. First baseman Sluss caught a popped-up bunt for the first out and Tyler Torres caught a pop-up at third bases. Mansfield’s lead-off hitter, Hunter Hargrove, was intentionally walked after Randall fell behind 2-0 in the count to bring up Hall.
“You just have to keep your mind right, just keep thinking of positive things — don’t think, if this guy gets a hit now, it’s almost over,” Randall said. “You just got to keep your mindset positive — I’m going to get the ball in the zone, let my teammates do the work. I trust them, I’ve trusted them all season and they’ve backed me up all season.”
After walking the first two batters he faced that ultimately scored the Knights’ only two runs, Mansfield starting pitcher Ryan Brooks kept Harker Heights from doing any more damage.
He struck out 12 and gave up just a single hit and walked three before being pulled in the sixth for reliever Blake Northrop.
The Knights totalled just two hits and didn’t get their first one until Sluss broke through with a single in the fifth off Northrop. Sluss also had Heights’ only other hit: a single off closer Kyle LaBerge in the seventh.
Randall gave up five hits and walked three in the complete-game win.
“It was just a great high school playoff game. Great defense. I told our kids, ‘In the long run, defense is going to win you a championship,’” Cunningham said. “We’re proud of our kids, but we’ve got two more and we’ve got to take care of business tomorrow.
“We know those guys will come back and want to take on the challenge. We feel good about it.”