TROY — The Salado and China Spring baseball teams already have played each other four times this season. It will require a fifth battle to decide whether it's the Eagles or the Cougars who extend their season at least one more week in the Class 4A playoffs.
Ryan Oakes pitched a complete game with seven strikeouts and Salado pounded out six doubles among 13 hits as a 5-0 first-inning lead propelled the Eagles to an 11-4 win in Friday evening's opening game of a best-of-three area-round series at Trojan Field.
However, China Spring charged back in the nightcap as Jacob Bright pitched a two-hitter with eight strikeouts and the Cougars cobbled together enough offense to earn a 3-0 victory that snapped Salado's 15-game winning streak and forced the Eagles into a do-or-die situation.
Salado (23-3-2) and China Spring (20-11-1) will duel in Game 3 at 11 a.m. today at Troy, with a berth in next week's Region III quarterfinals at stake.
“In the (postgame) huddle we just had, I could tell that our guys are ready to play right now,” said Salado second-year coach Kreece Cooper, whose Eagles hadn't lost since March 10. “They're not a group of kids that gets down on each other. We'll be ready to play.”
Entering Game 2 of the series, China Spring — the Region III runner-up to Robinson last year — had two 11-4 losses and a 1-1 tie against Salado. But after the Cougars outplayed the Eagles to even the series, they'll seek to land the knockout punch today.
“These guys have been through a lot. Last year (in the playoffs) we lost to Liberty Hill and then won two games the next day,” China Spring coach Jesse Lopez said. “(Salado) will get our best and we'll get their best. It'll be fun.”
Neither coach committed to a Game 3 starting pitcher. With senior Drew Dobbins unavailable to pitch because of an arm ailment, Cooper called slugging senior shortstop Jacob Wilk “the ultimate competitor” and said the Arkansas signee is a viable mound option for Salado.
The Salado-China Spring winner will play Lorena or Navasota. Lorena won Friday's series opener 3-1, and the best-of-three set in Cameron continues at 2 p.m. today.
Salado jumped all over China Spring lefty Carson Bell in the opening game's first inning, getting run-scoring hits from Caleb Self and Oakes, Max Marin's RBI fielder's choice, a run-scoring wild pitch and a key outfield error to seize a 5-0 lead. Marin's RBI single in the second and a Dalton Hawes sacrifice fly in the third made it 7-0, giving senior lefty Oakes (6-1) plenty of support.
Oakes, who featured a slow, big-breaking curveball, scattered nine hits and allowed two runs apiece in the third and fourth innings. But Salado kept pouring it on, producing a two-run fourth on Kade Maedgen's RBI single and Belton Farr's run-scoring double, then tacking on two runs in the seventh en route to the 11-4 win. Wilk had two hits and was intentionally walked three times.
As well as the Eagles hit the ball in Game 1, success proved elusive in Game 2 against senior right-hander Bright (5-1), who expertly mixed fastballs and breaking balls to rack up eight strikeouts. He didn't permit a hit after Farr's third-inning single.
“He pitched his butt off,” Lopez said.
Said Cooper: “He gave his team a chance to win. He threw a lot of strikes and pitched his tail off.”
Just as Salado took control early in Game 1, China Spring had a quick start in Game 2. Eagles righty Garrett Knight walked leadoff batter Payton Spell, who later scored on Bright's sacrifice fly to deep center.
The Cougars made it 2-0 in the fourth on Ty Herman's two-out RBI single. Sophomore righty Konnor Baird then relieved Knight and compiled seven strikeouts in the final 3 1/3 innings in an impressive performance, though his run-scoring wild pitch in the seventh made it 3-0.
China Spring let Salado remain in contention by dropping consecutive infield popups by Self and Maedgen with one out in the seventh. But Spell sprinted back to catch Farr's hard-hit fly ball and Bright got Oakes to ground out to seal the Cougars' shutout win and force today's winner-take-all showdown.
“We stung the ball and it just didn't fall. That's baseball,” Cooper said. “I'm proud of my guys for still fighting every inning.”