DALLAS — How many times have the Tigers come back in their magical and memorable run through the playoffs?.
Don’t count em, just savor them.
But savor Friday’s bounce-back, extra-inning 7-4 victory over Midlothian as one for the ages. Or at least the biggest and best in 61 years .
The “We’re never out of it” Tigers are on their way to the state tournament in Round Rock for the first time since 1958 after pulling off two comebacks Friday, sweeping Midlothian in the best-of-three 5A Region Championship series with a nail-biting 2-1 win in Game 1 and a “I can’t believe they did it again” 7-4 win in eight innings in Game 2 that sends them to Del Diamond Thursday night in the 5A state semifinals.
They had a sweep over the Panthers in their hands and a ticket to state in their pocket when they lost it late Friday evening, and then they snatched it right back — just like they have done so many times on this remarkable run that has them staying alive with the dream of a state title hanging from their hearts.
They won again with heart Friday (twice) and clinched it with three runs in the eighth after losing a 4-0 lead in the final two innings.
The Tigers won Game 1 with a gutsy and tense 2-1 comeback and built a 4-0 lead in Game 2 before Midlothian came back with two runs in the sixth and two in the bottom of the seventh to knot things at 4-4.
Blake Hoffman ran a mile to make a catch in left field on Josh Oliver’s bases-loaded sac fly in the seventh that tied things at 4-4, and Hoffman, the strong-armed quarterback, threw out a runner when shortstop Lane Fuentes took the throw and tagged out Anthony Ferrante between second and third to send the game to extra innings.
Then they shook off the bad news (just like against Lindale, and Joshua and last week against Lone Star) and went right to work, sending eight to the plate in the eighth inning and scoring on huge (no make that, monster hits) from Miguel Leuvano, whose one-out double sent Micah Burke to third), and Hunter Autrey, who came through one more time with a two-run liner to center to bring in Burke and Luevano with a 6-4 lead.
Then after loading the bases Cade Johnson lifted a sac fly to make it 7-4.
Devan Lindsey, who came in with one out in the seventh to close the game down, had a 1-2-3 eighth inning to get the win in relief after earning a save in Game 1.
The Tigers, who played 10 of their 11 playoff games at Dallas Baptist University (AKA Tiger Park North) and won eight of them, probably should petition the UIL to hold the state tournament right back at DBU, where tons of Tiger fans saw Heath Autrey's team play the best brand of baseball in years on their incredible journey through the playoffs The ball park is gorgeous and the atmosphere unbeatable for high school playoff showdowns, and the Tigers were priceless, giving the town and Navarro County a ride of a lifetime that ended Friday with yet another game no one who follows this program will forget any time soon.
This best-of-three playoff series had an extra layer of spice and sizzle because both teams had to fight their way out of the District 14-5A race, which was arguably the best 5A conference in Texas, and anyone who watched the back-to-back games Friday knows its a pity and a shame one of these had to lose.
They split two games in district and then both fought their way to get witin a step of the state tournament, so no should be surprised that both games had thrilling endings and the final one took extra innings.
The Tigers built their 4-0 lead in Game 2 on a strong start from Kolby Kinkade, who sailed through the first five innings shutting out the Panthers on three hits.
The Tigers scored a run in the second when Lindsey singled and scored on Caydon Rash’s grounder to short.
They scored twice in the third on two hits after Burke and Autrey walked and came home on RBI singles from Lindsey and Rash, and they added a run in the fourth when Burke scored on a wild pitch.
The Tigers had chances to blow the game open but left the bases loaded in the third and fourth and stranded 11 through seven innings.
But it didn’t matter because just as they have done all year and especially in the playoffs, they found a way to pick themselves off the floor and deliver one knock out punch after another.
They’re two wins away from a state title, joining the 1958 Tigers as the only team from CHS to reach the state tournament.
The Tigers grabbed the first game on the strength of a magnificent performance from Burke and a wild sixth inning that saw the Tigers come back and erase a 1-0 deficit with their biggest two-run inning of the year.
If you have been paying attention you know by now that getting the Tigers down is absolutely meaningless.
This group of kids has to be as determined (if not more determined) than any team in Texas.
They have left a parade of teams in their wake by refusing to quit and never getting down and making comebacks synonymous with Tiger Baseball for a month.
They were down to their last six outs in a winner-take-all one-game showdown in the Area round of the playoffs against Lindale, which went to the bottom of the sixth at Price Field with a 5-1 lead.
But the Tigers erupted for an eight-run inning to come back and survive 9-5 with a comeback that was anything but businesslike.
So being down 1-0 Friday with six outs left didn’t faze Autrey’s kids. He has called them resilient all the way through their amazing run in the playoffs, and there they were again on Friday looking up from a 1-0 and seeing nothing but daylight and tomorrow.
That’s why they are alive today and headed for Round Rock.
The rally started innocently enough with an infield hit from Fuentes, whose pop up sailed out of the reach of the Panthers.
Then Burke, who started Friday’s game hitting an amazing .516 in the playoffs, followed with an infield hit, and suddenly all the pressure was on the Panthers.
Luevano, who has been as cool as any player in the state during the heat of the postseason, walked on five pitches to load the bases.
Autrey made a bold move lifting his son, Hunter, a left-handed power hitter who leads the Tigers in RBIs, for Kinkade, opting for a right-hander pinch-hitter against Hawkins, one of the toughest lefties the Tigers saw all year.
Kinkade delivered with a sac fly to center to drive in Fuentes with the tying run.
Autrey knew that when Hawkins shut down the Tigers on four hits in a 3-1 win in the district game in Midlothian that the only run Corsicana scored that day came on a sac fly from Kinkade.
He did it again. Only this time the run meant so so so much more.
With runners at first and second, Lindsey hit a grounder to short and went flying down the first base line in a bang-bang play. But the Panther’s first baseman dropped the ball to keep the inning alive in one of the biggest plays of the day -- and the season.
Lindsey’s speed and no quit desire made the play as close as it was.
That’s a snapshot for this team’s attitude in the playoffs.
With the bases loaded and two outs, Hawkins hit Ty Nolen with a 2-1 curveball, for the game-winning RBI.
Stick that inning and that moment in a scrapbook for the first Tiger team to get to the state tournament in 61 years.
Burke, who was the ace of the staff all year, stepped up again in his biggest game of the season.
He threw a masterpiece, allowing just one hit — and it was an infield hit at that — and totally dominated the Panther hitters over his 6 1/3 innings of work.
The only run he gave up was a tainted unearned run that came in the first inning when Midlothian’s leadoff hitter, Nathan Humphrey walked.
Humphrey was the Panthers’ best hitter in the two regular season games against Corsicana, but he went hitless against Burke Friday.
Burke got the next hitter, Josh Tankersley, to ground into what should have been a 6-4-3 double play but an error sent Tankersley to second. He moved up to third on a passed ball and scored on a ground out to short.
That unearned run was all Midlothian could muster against Burke, who retired 10 of the next 11 Panthers until Hunter Harrington reached on an error with two outs in the fourth.
Jackson Quinn followed with a grounder in the hole at short. Fuentes made a good play, but Quinn beat the throw for an infield hit and the only blemish on Burke’s start.
Burke left two runers on by getting Josh Oliver on a routine fly out to Cade Johnson in center and sent the Panthers back to the dugout again, retiring eight of the next nine until Quinn led off the seventh with a grounder and reached second on a throwing error.
Autrey went to Lindsey, aho has closed out games all year, and Devan came through again.
He struck out the first man he faced, and then hit a batter to put runners at first and second. No problem. Lindsey came right back and closed it out with a grounder to short and a pop out to third to nail down the 2-1 victory.
This one didn’t just feel sweet because of its incredible significance of being Game 1 of the Region II Championship, but tasted even sweeter because the Tigers beat Caden Hawkins, who beat them 3-1 in a district game in Midlothian, where he went the distance and struck out 10 Tigers.
They didn’t hammer him, but they beat Hawkins and he was the key to the series for the Panthers.
He hadn’t lost a game since February, and the Panthers felt great about starting him in Game 1.
Hawkins was as good as advertised and pitched well enough to win, but Burke was just better on Friday.
So were the Tigers ...