What a day.
A sun-drenched field, pinstripes, pickoffs and power pitching, back-handed plays at short and safety squeeze bunts that work, a coach named Whoa and the Catcher in the Rye on the mound.
Welcome to Navarro baseball.
Or better yet, welcome back.
The Bulldogs, those nationally-ranked, let’s win-it-all-this-year Bulldogs, opened the baseball season Friday afternoon at home under the bluest of Texas skies with enough hope and promise to fill them.
Like fast starts? How about this? The first four Bulldogs who came to the plate all scored. That’s all Navarro needed (and all the Bulldogs got) in their season opening 4-2 win over North Central Texas.
Holden Grounds, the pitcher whose name rings of the Catcher in the Rye, started and got his first JUCO win. He gave up a run in the first, settled in and left with a 4-1 lead after three inning to earn the victory in the seven-inning game and opener of a doubleheader.
“I thought he threw well,’’ said Navarro Coach Whoa Dill. “He was a little up (with his pitches). He was fired up. He’s going to be fine. He’s going to be a great pitcher for us.’’
Grounds has been a great pitcher since he was a kid, tossing off the sandlots and Little League mounds in Corsicana. He left Corsicana High as one of the top pitchers in the state, earning All-State honors as well as being named the All-Golden Circle Player of the Year.
But this was his first college game and the wind was blowing in and swirling at 25 mph with gusts in the 30s. Like any good pitcher, Grounds adjusted to the new college game, the wind and being at Navarro. He gave up a run in the first and then retired eight of the next 10 he faced.
Not bad for the first time out facing batters, expectations and some opening day excitement.
“My (adrenaline) was going pretty good. I knew it was a big game because it’s the first game and you want to start the season 1-0. You always want to win the first one,” said Grounds, who gave up two hits and struck out three, including two of the last three batters he faced. He got the last one looking at a curve that bent just right.
That’s the way that first game felt to the Bulldogs — just right.
The first four batters not only reached base, but they all scored .
With the wind blowing in, Dill went to small ball. Well, it was more like small, smaller and smallest as Navarro put down three bunts in the first inning. They were all pretty, and they all did the job — and two of them brought home runs. That’s bigtime small ball.
Daniel Costello and Grayson Lewis led off with back-to-back walks and Costello stole second. Kyle Kirk opened the bunt-a-thon and not only beat the throw for a hit but brought in Costello. Luke Hoyle followed with an RBI single to center, and then Dill went back to the bunt, and Ryan Thomas delivered with a sacrifice to move the runners up. J.P. Phillips then had a sacrifice bunt that brought in a 3-0 lead, and Jovan Hernandez ripped a two-out single to right, and suddenly Grounds and the Bulldogs had a 4-1 lead.
That held up, thanks to some tough pitching that included two pickoffs and a few plays worth a highlight tape. There was shortstop Mason Hesse’s strong backhand play in the fourth inning, second baseman Kirk’s show-stopping play on a hard grounder in the third and right fielder Sam McDonnell’s run-a-mile catch in the fifth.
Dill wants pitching and defense and that’s who showed up in the opener. He just needed to get a few runs.
“It’s one of those deals where the wind is blowing in and you want to get that first guy on and manufacture a run,’’ Dill said. “You really want to get a lead in a game like this.’’
He smiled when he was reminded all four scored.
“That was a great start,’’ he said. “We had some bunts and we had a safety squeeze that got a run, and the Jovan got the big two-out hit to bring in a run. That was big. The big thing is we used all freshman pitchers except for my closer Jack Moffitt. It was their first game and we got that first win.’’
Freshman Keenan Wingfield followed Grounds and gave up a run on two hits over two innings. Freshman Jorge Flores was impressive in one inning of work. He opened with a strikeout, walked a guy and then picked him off and got a lazy fly to center to have a 1-2-3 inning. Moffitt, the only sophomore to pitch in the opener, looked and threw like one. He wrapped it up with a hitless seventh that included two strikeouts.
Navarro completed the perfect day with another 4-2 win in the second game to start the season at 2-0.
It left Dill and his players smiling. They all wanted a fast start and got one. They’re ranked No. 5 in the nation in the NJCAA national poll, and the goal is to get back to the nationals and win it all again like in 2011.
They fell a little short a year ago, but form the first pitch in practice this group believes they can win it all. They wanted a to start the season right, and boy, did they.
They walked off with two wins on a gorgeous opening day full of wind and youngests and the promise of a big season.
And when they walked off the diamond after that second win of the day, well, that big blue Texas sky looked a little bluer.