RED OAK — For the second time this season, Ellis County witnessed a pitcher's duel — this time between Midlothian's Russ Smith and Red Oak's Erik Gipson.
And after the dust settled Saturday at Buddy Groom Field, the Hawks emerged the 2-0 victor despite the two schools combining for six total hits.
"We played better defense today than we did against Lancaster last night," Red Oak Coach Jay Johnson said. "[The Tigers] were better than they have been in the past. They played good defense and put the ball in play. We — just like today — were focused on playing the game, not the team."
Each team entered the Saturday showdown on a roll. Midlothian had beaten Mansfield Summit High School 6-0 with six seven-strikeout innings from game-winner Blake Bolgiano and relief pitchers Jacob Cornell and Cade Faulkner and Mason Quinn's two-run double.
Red Oak (16-3-2, 5-1) used a three-run fifth inning, nine hits and 100 pitches from Austin Tuley and Ronnie Iracheta to stifle Lancaster High School's rally and win 9-3. It was the Hawks' fourth win since falling to Waxahachie High School 5-0 on March 17.
Though hits by Brandon Gipson (1-for-3), Alex Loera (1-for-3) and Jordan Trotter (1-for-3) helped pierce the tough hide of the Panthers, it was crucial mistakes that handed Midlothian its fifth district loss of the 2017 season.
Tied at zero in the bottom of the fourth inning, Trotter scored on an errant throw to first base and then added another run after a wild pitch that scored Lance Milke. Those mistakes, Panther Coach Ray Hydes said, came during the game's biggest moment and were backbreakers for Midlothian.
Until the pair of errors, starting pitcher Russ Smith had allowed a single hit and no runs and fanned three batters. He finished with seven strikeouts, two errors, two runs on three hits and one walk with 79 pitches.
A simple flick of the wrist and snap of the ball in first baseman Drake Girard's glove and the outcome could have been an 180-degree difference.
"It seems like when we make mistakes it just kills us," Hydes said. "Russ was throwing no-hit ball and we had a couple of guys in scoring position and couldn't get them in but if you look at it, if we strike out that guy and throw the guy out, we get out of the inning and it's still 0-0. That's the way it is, sometimes. It's the nature of the beast."
While fourth-inning errors unsteadied Smith's almost perfect performance, Midlothian couldn't shake Gipson until the seventh inning. Gipson struck out six batters and walked four while allowing no runs on three hits.
Midlothian's Matthew Coleman (1-for-3, 2B), Chandler Miller (1-for-4, 2B) and Tyler Spain (1-for-2, 3B) added Midlothian's three hits and Gibson (1-for-3, 1B), Trotter (1-for-3, 1B) Alec Loera (1-for-1, 1B) earned Red Oak's base hits.
The final inning, though, is where Midlothian struck. The Panther batters — Anthony Ferrante, Jett Johnson, Matthew Coleman and Josh Tankersley — used patient at-bats to load the bases, force Gipson out of the game and put sure-batted Chandler Miller at the plate with the tying run 90 feet away at third base.
That's when Red Oak fought fire with proverbial fire and threw their second rotation starter into the fray.
"This was a big game for us, as far as the district is concerned," Johnson said. "It was kind of a must-win for [Midlothian] and a big swing game for us. That's how it works in this district. Things could change in the matter of a week. If you play two good teams in a week your record could go from first to all the way out of the playoff picture. That's the way the district is shaping up and everybody is beating everybody. It was good for us to see a player the caliber of Russ, too. We're going to face a guy like that in the playoffs and we're going to have to beat guys like that later in district and in the postseason."
Jennings, who picked up the save in less than an inning of relief, got Red Oak out of the bases loaded jam with only four pitches.
Red Oak remained in a three-way tie for first place in District 10-5A with Mansfield Legacy and Waxahachie High Schools. They will have a chance to turn the three-team shuffle into a two-team dance when they meet the Broncos at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Mansfield Legacy Bronco Field.
The (17-3-2, 5-1) Broncos have won eight of their last 10 games. During losses to Mansfield and Waxahachie High Schools, they were held to a total of three runs.
Midlothian, now 1-5, fell to the bottom of the district standings with their playoff future in jeopardy with the end of the first round of district play and their 7 p.m. Tuesday matchup with Lancaster High School on the horizon.
Lancaster is winless in district play.
"They kept fighting at the end and gave us a chance to win and I don't think the kids ever stopped competing," Hydes said about his team's late-game effort. "Sometimes, that's all you can ask for in a rough season like we're having. We just continue to put ourselves in bad situations and give away easy runs. We're trying to win games and get a little better every day. They're really young, we've got a lot of inexperience and they need to learn how to fight through adversity a little better but they're getting better. Earlier [games] we were making a ton of errors — like four or five a game. Today, we just made two. Unfortunately, those two were costly."
Marcus S. Marion can be reached for story idea submissions or concerns at (469) 517-1456. Follow him on Twitter at @MarcusMarionWNI.