By Alex Byington
Killeen Daily Herald
Talking about a career night at the plate, James Mulheron nailed it.
"It's simple - they were on the ball tonight and we weren't," he said. "We weren't at our best."
A perennial slow starter on the mound, a rusty Ryan Bates was a perfect example after he allowed eight earned runs on 11 hits in 4 2/3 innings as Richardson Lake Highlands jumped out early and held on for an 11-8 victory over host Ellison in Game 1 of their best-of-three area-round playoff series Thursday.
"Of course there was rustiness when you haven't pitched for a while, but I just wasn't on my game tonight," Bates said of his first start in almost three weeks. "Nothing was there - the fastball wasn't there - and I couldn't locate anything."
Battling through his usual early inning struggles, the Eagles' senior captain surrendered two first-inning runs after allowing three straight hits to open the game. Lake Highlands leadoff hitter Cameron Bodell doubled to right-center and scored on a single by No. 3 hitter Blake Woodson, who finished 2-for-4 with four RBIs.
"You tip your hat to them because they came out fired up and we came out a little flat," Ellison coach Craig Martin said.
Ellison (19-11-1) responded in the first with authority as designated hitter Pedro Varela sent the second pitch he saw over the left-field wall for his first home run, scoring Felix Marbury from second base. Marbury ran for Justin Dingman, who doubled when Browder dropped a deep fly after colliding with the right-field fence.
After a second-inning RBI single up the middle by Michael Ketchmark (3-for-3 with three RBIs), Bates seemed to lock in, sending down the next six Wildcats - five on strikeouts - as he breezed through a 1-2-3 third inning.
But after striking out the first two batters of the fourth, the wheels began to fall off defensively.
Beginning with an Ellison fielding miscue, Lake Highlands (20-11-2) scored three unearned runs to go ahead 7-2 on three errors in the inning.
"That was a key. We felt like we had to do something early and maybe put them on defense, and hope their offense would struggle being under pressure like that," said Lake Highlands coach Jay Higgins.
The Eagles scored two fourth-inning runs on a Mulheron gapper following a scary collision in left-center field that left Bodell lying helpless for several minutes after slamming into left fielder Taylor Stell. Greg Green and Ross King scored on the play, and Bodell walked off afterward into an ambulance.
After the collision, the Wildcats tallied four more runs in the top of the fourth, all coming with two outs, as Burns (four-pitch walk) scored on a passed ball and Woodson and Ketchmark had back-to-back RBI hits to chase Bates.
Eagles sophomore Colbi Reese came on in relief and faced just one over the minimum over the final 2 1/3 innings.
Ellison put another scare into Lake Highlands pitcher Judson Luther, who went the distance but gave up four runs in the bottom of the sixth when Varela scored on a balk, Mulheron added an RBI-double and K.J. Stark doubled in two more to pull the Eagles within three.
"Our guys did a good job of fighting back, but it's tough when you give yourself a seven-run hole to dig out of," Martin said.
Ellison must sweep Highlands in two games Saturday as the series shifts to Richardson, with Game 2 starting at noon.
Contact Alex Byington at email@example.com or (254) 501-7566.