LILBURN – Over the course of 33 games entering the Class AAAAAA semifinals Monday, Lambert Longhorns baseball had earned every glowing measurement of a great high school baseball team. The evidence was clear that Lambert had an abundance of skill – strong pitching, powerful bats, smothering defense, acute understanding of the game’s “little things.”
But the quality that best served the Longhorns on Monday in their sweep of Parkview goes by many names – grit, perseverance, toughness, resiliency. Pick whichever you like. They all hint at some subtle component of a team’s DNA that is only displayed under tenuous circumstances.
Those moments had been few and far between for Lambert this season so as to make the Longhorns’ toughness almost undetectable. That’s no fault of Lambert. Only a team of superior talent and knowledge can go 34-1, ascend to the No. 1 ranking in the Class AAAAAA and claim the top spot in the nation from USA Today.
Perseverance requires energy. Best not to waste it when comfortable wins would suffice.
There were hints of Lambert’s resiliency this season. The run through the USA Baseball Classic tournament during spring break. The 3-2 comeback win over Johns Creek on the road as the Longhorns’ undefeated run picked up momentum. The Game 3 win over Mill Creek in the second round of the state playoffs when Lambert overcame a 3-0 deficit to advance.
But Monday’s doubleheader was a pure rush from pitch to pitch, at-bat to at-bat, inning to inning of moments that tested Lambert’s DNA.
At Hugh Buchanan Field, where Parkview has proven to be a tough out in the state tournament, the Longhorns simply bested the Panthers in resolve.
“Very calm under pressure,” Lambert head coach Jamie Corr said. “That’s a team that’s been in a lot of pressure situations throughout this year. Going to the Memphis trip in the middle of the year was good because we saw incredible competition, and they all got in sticky situations and they learned how to rely on their teammates to get out of those sticky situations.”
Start with Lambert Game 1 starter JD Dutka. Last time on the mound, the senior right-hander was charged with the Longhorns’ only loss of the season against Mill Creek in Game 2 of the second round. Through the first three rounds, Dutka had not been his usually confounding and consistent self. He was hittable, and now he had to face Parkview ace and LSU signee Mac Marshall, the source of all the radar guns behind homeplate.
Then Dutka was literally hit. A scorching line drive in the first inning by Parkview’s Isiah Gilliam got Dutka on his pitching arm near the wrist and bounced halfway toward third base. Corr took a few steps out of the dugout as he headed to mound to check on Dutka, but he didn’t get far. Dutka flashed a thumbs up, Corr walked back and the righty made Parkview first baseman Jordan Kelly look silly on the next pitch swinging through a devastating change-up.
Next inning, Dutka served up a home run to Brandon Hill to spoil Lambert’s 1-0 lead. Parkview third baseman Jim Wagner followed, and Dutka wasted a 0-2 count by hitting him.
No matter. Dutka got Panthers designated hitter Austin Biggar to fly out and shortstop Trevor Brown to ground into a double play. Dutka proceeded to retire 10 of the next 12 batters. Whereas Marshall labored through 97 pitches and five walks in 5 2/3 innings, Dutka went the distance on 86 with just one walk, a lesson on the endurance that perseverance demands.
Now consider Chris Cummings. With Dutka on the mound, Cummings played third base. His value to Lambert in Game 1 was his glove, and it betrayed him in the sixth inning with the Longhorns up 2-1.
Parkview second baseman Daniel Deas led off with a single up the middle, then centerfielder Michael Craig crushed a pitch right to Cummings. He fielded the grounder cleanly, but the ball shot out of his glove like a geyser to put runners on first and second with no outs.
“Right when I made that error, I was thinking, man, I should’ve had that,” Cummings said. “But right after that play was over, I knew I had to start with a clean slate. That play was done.”
Indeed, Cummings didn’t get much time to dwell. Gilliam hit a searing line drive on Dutka’s next pitch right at Cummings. Both the thrill and danger of third base are these plays. Another miscue and Gilliam’s hit would roll down the left field line and Parkview could be on its way the big inning that lifted it so many times during the playoffs.
Instead, Cummings snagged it from the air.
“That’s what’s saved us all year,” Corr said. “When someone does make a slight misplay, they’re ready the very next pitch to come back and make a great one.”
Yes, Monday’s doubleheader was full of great plays – slick ones from shortstop Trey Logan in the fifth inning of Game 1; clutch ones on errant throws by first baseman Ian Kimbrell; and the final one of all on designated hitter Jake Chickowski’s two-run home run in Game 2 to break a 2-2 tie in the fifth inning.
“We don’t get down on ourselves,” Chickowski said. “We know when we’re down we just have to keep fighting and go back it.”
So back at it Saturday at Milton, the defending state champions, where the Longhorns are sure to have their toughness tried again.
Brian Paglia covers sports for the Forsyth County News. He can be reached at email@example.com, 770-205-8982 or follow him on Twitter at @BrianPaglia.