PRINCETON — The two top baseball teams in District 11-4A went at it on Tuesday, April 17, in a late-season showdown — a match to decide who owns first place with two regular-season games left. Of course, pitching played a huge role and this night Princeton veteran Austin Hitchcock prevailed, leading the Panthers to a 3-0 shutout of Melissa. The result left Princeton alone atop the district with a 7-1 mark and dropped the Cards a game back at 6-2. Both of Melissa’s losses have come courtesy of the Panthers.

Hitchcock spread four hits over these seven innings while striking out nine and walking two. He retired the Cards in order three times. Melissa starter Andrew Cole, in another complete-game outing, allowed only four hits as well, with two strikeouts and four walks.

Extra-base hits were at a premium, with Princeton’s Maika Brinkerhoff logging the game’s lone such offering — a double in the fifth inning. The Panthers pecked away with single runs in the first, fourth and fifth innings as Cole battled, stranding 14 Princeton baserunners. Melissa left six runners aboard.

“I thought Hitchcock had an outstanding performance,” Princeton head coach Leroy Mansanales said. “My assistant coach, who’s been here six years and seen all four years of him throwing, commented that it’s probably the best game he’s ever seen him throw. … We didn’t score as many as we had been scoring because that’s a very good team, Melissa. That’s the caliber of team we’re going to be seeing when we get to the playoffs.”

“Yeah, he threw well tonight,” Melissa head coach Jason Russell said of Hitchcock. “You tip your hat to those guys. They did well, situational hitting-wise, and they scratched three runs when they needed to, when they got the chance to. Andrew didn’t have his best stuff but he competed. And that’s all you can ask from the guy — to go give us a shot.”

The Panthers’ first-inning run came on Hitchcock’s one-out single to center field. After a lead-off single in the fourth, the Panthers loaded the bases on back-to-back two-out walks. A hit batsmen then sent home Princeton’s second run. In the fifth, Brinkerhoff’s one-out two-bagger to left preceded Kole Massey’s RBI-single and the Panthers’ scoring was complete.

The Cards had chances to claw runs themselves. In the first, after Isaiah Segovia drew a walk, Tyler Womack slapped a one-out single to center but a Princeton double-play ended the threat. Tate Whittington logged a sharp, two-out single in the third but was left aboard when Hitchcock coaxed a ground-out to the shortstop. Melissa bats were then silent till the sixth when Grayson Hurst led off with an infield single. But three pitches later, Hitchcock picked him off at first. In Melissa’s final at-bat, Bobby Houston sent a two-out single to right but a strikeout quickly ended the game.

The Cards hosts Anna on Friday and finish the regular season on Tuesday, April 24, at Celina. “We’ve just got to be better,” Russell said. “We’ve got to go back to work tomorrow. We’ve got to keep winning games.”