MIDLOTHIAN — When Midlothian High School needed a win Tuesday against Red Oak High School at Panther Field to stay in the hunt for the final seed, it didn't call upon miracles.
It called upon defense, tradition, the left arm it's 6-foot-9 Texas Christian University-bound ace and his second no-hitter in three starts.
"It wasn't only me," Midlothian senior Russ Smith said as he ripped off the tape holding the ice packs strapped to his left arm. "It's these guys and the defense around me that helped us stay in the race. We had a lot of young guys that played on varsity last year that the seniors had to groom and get ready for the play at this level. Now they're unbelievable. Any time a team puts the ball in play, I pretty much know it's going to be an out. It's a blessing to have that type of back up behind me."
Smith edged Ellis County counterpart Austin Tuley after striking out 11 batters, walking two and allowing one run via a pitching error on a Jordan Trotter bunt and a sacrifice fly by Bryant Bailey in the first inning. Smith, who dealt his first district no-no against Mansfield Timberview on April 11 and allowed only three hits against Mansfield Lake Ridge on April 18, now has 95 strikeouts this season — good for top five in Texas' UIL 5A classification.
"This was a big-time game for us because we had to win to stay in [the playoff race]. When you have a kid and a competitor like that, you'll win a lot of games," Panther Head Coach Ray Hydes said. "Tonight it was making routine plays and limiting errors and extra chances that helped us pull it out. It's something we've gotten better at as the season's gone on. We talked about doing what we do best and that's staying within ourselves and clawing, scratching and winning close ball games."
Tuley, who spelled second-in-rotation hurler Chase Jennings in the fifth inning because of illness, struck out five batters with only 21 pitches, walked none and earned a game-best 71 percent strike rate. Jennings also fanned five batters and allowed two runs on the only two hits of the game with 80 total pitches.
The Panthers (10-16-2, 7-6) needed a crafty steal by Jonathan Little and two hits — a base hit by Tyler Spain and a RBI single by Drake Girard — to rally from a one-run deficit, even the district series and force a tie for third place with Mansfield Lake Ridge and Red Oak High Schools.
And despite their second-half slide, Hawk Skipper Jay Johnson said his team has become battle tested through wars against Mansfield Legacy, Midlothian and Waxahachie.
"I feel we competed better tonight than we did all year and played very well the second half — we lost two one-run games and a nine-inning game — but, sometimes, that's the way baseball is," Hawk Skipper Jay Johnson said. "You may get some breaks here and there and win some ball games the first round that may not go your way in the second half. We're a little shell-shocked right now after going 6-1 and in first place to fourth place and trying to hang on and get into the playoffs in the matter of a week. We still control our destiny."
Midlothian's bats sparked and found life in the game's opening innings after a catcher's interference call on Wren Hampton earned Miller a base to leadoff and back-to-back base hits by Girard and Spain deadlocked the score in the first inning and Little's game-winning steal broke the tie in the second.
Red Oak's baseball future almost echoes Johnson's poignant words, as the Hawks hold playoff destiny — and the ability to reach the postseason for the first time in two years — in their collective hands. Despite losing
five of the last six games, Red Oak held the district lead less than a month ago after claiming five consecutive victories.
Midlothian, which won four of its last six games, has roared back into postseason contention and created a situation where three teams from the same county and a district labeled the "District of Doom" could potentially make the playoffs.
For those circumstances to come to fruition, Red Oak would have to win its 7 p.m. Friday matchup with Mansfield Legacy High School at Buddy Groom Field and Midlothian would have to top Lancaster at 7 p.m. Friday at Tiger Field.
"On the scoreboard out there, it says 'Tradition continues.' That's what we're playing for. We've had a lot of really good teams and players come through [Midlothian] and they're watching us," Hydes said, motioning to the large blue and white scoreboard in centerfield. "Considering where we've come from, it's been a long, uphill battle. It's our 10th win of the season. We knew the district was going to be tough and everybody started beating each other up and we became one of those teams that started to play well at the end. All we need is a chance because in the playoffs anything can happen. But it's not anything anyone's going to give you. You've got to earn it."
Red Oak beat Mansfield Legacy (20-7, 10-3), which is vying for a district championship, 5-4 on April 4 and Lancaster (6-18, 0-13) is winless in the district.
Marcus S. Marion can be reached for story idea submissions or concerns at (469) 517-1456. Follow him on Twitter at @MarcusMarionWNI.