Few championship teams are able to make it through their dramatic seasons as a carbon copy of the one that started the journey. Generally, over time any number of variables catch up to them – injuries, poor play, an unheralded emergence – and then a coach, a player, a team, a program finds out what it’s made of.
What other answer did we need from Lambert baseball besides the sight of the Longhorns piled up in the Milton infield after senior pitcher Dylan Biumi caught the Eagles’ Dalton Ewing looking for an inning-ending, game-ending, series- and season-ending strikeout? Or Lambert players lined up along the first base line behind that glossy silver trophy with their horns held high?
The Longhorns didn’t win Game 3, or the Class AAAAAA championship, for that matter, the way it ran through a perfect regular season. Some of the ingredients were there, for sure, most noticeably the pitching.
For of all of Game 3 starter Seth Beer’s struggles – breezing through two dominant innings only to unravel in the third and be pulled after a leadoff double by Milton senior Dylan Cease in the fourth – he still allowed just one run, a manageable deficit for a potent lineup.
For all of Turner Scruggs’ haphazard decisions in a Game 2 relief appearance – throwing away a pickoff attempt to let a runner score from second and another to advance to third who later scored – he threw three resilient innings of relief in Game 3. He left Cease stranded at second in the fourth, worked around a leadoff bunt single by Ryan Gridley in the fifth and withstood a leadoff walk to Cease in the sixth.
For all of Dylan Biumi’s frustrations in a Game 2 loss – he was called for an illegal pitch, allowed six hits and three runs (two earned) and threw away a confounding pickoff throw to third base that let a run score – he was redeemed with a save in Game 3. On Saturday, when Biumi’s night was done, it was Scruggs who came in in relief. He met Biumi at the first base line with a hug. On Monday, Biumi met Scruggs after he gave up a leadoff single to Seth Curry. Biumi promptly got Ryan Gridley to ground into a fielder’s choice. Jeremy Johnson tracked down Erik Petersen’s fly ball in the leftfield foul territory. Then Biumi froze Ewing on a 2-2 breaking ball on the outside corner to set up off the celebration.
While Lambert’s pitching held to regular season form, its hitting regressed to previously unseen struggles. Lambert’s lineup had been billed as a foreboding force one through nine. The Longhorns hit just .243 (17-for-70) with three extra-base hits during the three-game series. Few saw those struggles coming for a team that entered the series hitting .378.
Blame some of it on Milton’s formidable pitching, a staff of Clemson signee Alex Schnell and Georgia Southern signee Matt Geiger that would’ve been tortuous had Cease, a Vanderbilt signee and first-round talent, been healthy. Blame some of it on the field dimensions that stretched to 380 feet in centerfield where several crushed fly balls died in this series.
Whatever the reason, this was Lambert’s crucible.
The Longhorns’ ultimate answer was nothing more than shear grit. They couldn’t rely on their penchant for home runs (they hit none). They couldn’t rely on any knack for the hit in the big moment (they stranded 26 runners on base). The only consistent source of hits over the three games was sophomore centerfielder Tucker Maxwell, who went 6-for-8 with two RBIs.
The only option was to grind and grind away, waiting for some good stroke of fortune. So pinch-hitter Will Dunavant rocked a line drive RBI single in the fourth inning to tie the game 1-1. Then Kyle McCann hit a bloop single off the end of his bat just beyond the reach of Milton third baseman Dalon Farkas to drive in the eventual game-winning run in the fifth.
What Lambert was this? The one it needed to be. Before the series, when I talked with Milton coach Joey Ray about what the Eagles learned from last season’s run to the state championship, he said it was crucial for his team to understand its identity and play within it despite the magnitude of the stage.
But for Lambert, there came a time to shatter its identity and just find some way to win.
In doing so, the Longhorns found out what their coach, players, team and program was made of.
Turns out there’s championship DNA in Lambert.
Brian Paglia is sports editor of the Forsyth County News. He can be reached at 770-205-8982, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @BrianPaglia.