A consensus can be difficult to reach in baseball, a game that involves countless decisions at nearly every point in a game, but there was one among Forsyth County coaches before the Region 5-7A schedule started: Any team could win or lose on any given night.
There might not be a better affirmation of that prediction than the one delivered on Monday night by Lambert, a team that went 5-7 in non-region play and had to replace six starting position players and three important pitchers from its 2016 squad.
No matter, the Longhorns have said: With a 5-4 walk-off win over West Forsyth – along with Milton’s loss to South Forsyth – Lambert put itself alone in first place with a 6-1 record in region play.
“I credit our kids,” Longhorns head coach Rick Howard said. “We had some bumps, there’s no question about it, where they could have tucked their heads a little bit, and they decided to compete and fight. And that’s what you’re seeing.”
Monday’s game was itself indicative of the overall closeness of region teams so far. West (9-10, 3-4 Region 5-7A) scored three runs in the first – all unearned, buoyed by three Lambert errors – but had difficulty getting to Longhorns righthander Zach Keenan, as just three Wolverines batters reached base the rest of the way.
Lambert (11-8, 6-1) couldn’t string together a sustained rally either, even though they had more hits than the Wolverines and benefited from five West errors. West starter Hank Flood let at least one runner reach third or score in each of his five innings of work, but he surrendered just two runs.
The Longhorns’ run so far through the region has been distinguished by exquisite timing, like in the region opener, when they got a two-out double at the tail end of a dominant start by Forsyth Central’s Ethan Hankins to send that game to extra innings and eventually win it.
“Once somebody starts stepping up, then everybody else starts believing they can step up,” Howard said.
Monday saw more dramatics. Facing Tanner Chafin in the bottom of the seventh, Lambert put its first two runners on and got an RBI groundout by Brady Burroughs to cut its deficit to 4-3. Bobby Gabriel grounded out to third to put West an out away from a win, but Josh McAllister tripled off the left field wall to tie the game for Will Gabbert.
Gabbert said he felt no pressure during the at-bat because he knew the game wasn’t over even if he didn’t get a hit. West’s Ryan Ferguson fed Gabbert curveballs early on, which caused Gabbert to guess fastball on a 2-2 count, but he sat back on another breaking ball and served a shallow fly ball into center, which dropped in and scored McAllister.
Lambert’s rocky start wasn’t ideal, but Howard can now see the benefits of it.
“We played a tough (non-region) schedule because we wanted to hopefully develop kids and challenge them,” Howard said. “When you get into region, you find yourself in those tough situations and you compete in that situation. What you do with it, you don’t know until you get there, but at least they’ve faced it.”
McAllister and Gabbert, the two heroes from Monday, are also two of the three returners from last season’s lineup. Gabbert, for one, is confident that a younger, slightly more bruised Longhorns squad can nonetheless strive for a four-peat region title this season.
“Our defense has been solid, and the bats are starting to come around, too,” Gabbert said. “And our pitching’s been there all year. So if those things come together, we’re not going to lose.”