By T. Scott Boatright
There’s something about walk-off wins for the Choudrant Aggies in low-scoring baseball games.
And the Aggies were back at it Thursday night as a strong start and fantastic finish by Bryce McGuire sparked the top-seeded Aggies to a 2-1 walk-off win over Hicks in the quarterfinals of the Class B Nonselect School baseball championships at Tony Antley Field.
That win sends the two-time defending state champs back to Sulphur for a third-straight year.
Choudrant will next face fifth-seeded Anacoco at 11 a.m. Tuesday in semifinals action at McMurray Park in Sulphur.
“Expectation was set here way before I got here – the goal every year is to win a state championship,” said first-year Aggies head coach Joel Antley. “Now I know we can’t do it every year, but that’s the goal. But don’t set our goal for anything less.
“But with these guys, we wouldn’t have to set the goal anyway. That’s their goal. Their goal is to go back and put another ring on their finger.”
The game’s low-scoring tone was set from the get-go as Choudrant senior pitcher Bryce McGuire fired up his team and the standing-room only crowd by opening the game in perfect fashion with three strikeouts on nine pitches.
“You can’t get a better start than that – an immaculate inning,” Antley said. “Nine pitches. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that.
“He was fantastic in that first inning, but after that he struggled a little with his pitches. He’s usually not out of the zone. He pounds the strike zone. But that plan was to pitch him and then bring up Landon (Hennen).”
It was an inning that fueled McGuire’s fire until he crossed the plate with the winning run in the bottom of the seventh and final inning.
“That was insane starting off the game like that,” McGuire said. “I’ve never done that before in 10 years of pitching. From what I hear, it’s rarer than a perfect game, so it was an outstanding way to start the game and got everybody hyped up.”
Choudrant had a chance to grab an early lead after Gavin Murphy and Kaden Bradshaw both singled with two outs in the bottom half of the opening stanza, but Hicks pitcher Hayden Doyle worked himself out of the jam without giving up a run.
“I’d have felt a lot better if we would have scored seven or eight runs in those first few innings, but I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was no quit in these guys,” Antley said. “And with our guys on the mound, I have complete confidence that very few runs are going to get scored.
“We struggled a little tonight. That (Hicks) pitcher is good – his curveball is about 20 miles per hour different than his fastball, so it’s really hard to combat that. He mixes his pitches up really well and pitched a fantastic ballgame.”
Doyle and McGuire kept the pitchers’ duel going until the top of the fourth inning, when Hicks took advantage of a throwing error that pulled CHS first baseman TJ Smith off the bag and before plating that run with a single that put the Pirates on top 1-0.
The Aggies had a chance to tie things up in the bottom of the fourth by putting two runners on base with only one out before the Pirates pulled off a pitcher to shortstop to catcher double play that allowed Doyle to again work himself out of a jam.
“We had chances to score,” Antley said. “One base hit would have gotten us two here and another base hit would have gotten us two there. They made some good plays defensively. All-in-all, that was a fantastic ballgame.”
After Hennen and McGuire switched positions with Hennen taking the mound to open the top half of the stanza, the Aggies tied the game in the bottom of the fifth inning when McGuire walked with one out, advanced to second base on a Murphy single and then scored on a hard-hit single by Aggies’ outfielder Mike Jones.
Hennen shut down the Pirates in the top of the sixth and seventh innings, sending the Aggies to bat with one last chance to try and keep the game from going into extra innings.
McGuire led off with a walk before a sacrifice bunt by Murphy advanced him to scoring position at second base.
Hicks then intentionally walked Bradshaw to give the Aggies runners at first and second base while also increasing the odds of the Pirates potentially pulling off a double play to end the inning.
“After Bryce walked, it should have been obvious Gavin was going bunt. We were going to bunt Bryce into scoring position. Now I did have a feeling they might walk Bradshaw at that point to put the force out back everywhere and to not have to pitch to him.”
That brought Jones to the plate, and the junior slapped a grounder to third that looked like it would be the Aggies’ second out of the inning.
But the Pirates’ third baseman threw wide to first base and the ball rolled back toward the fence as McGuire began his sprint to home plate and the walk-off win.
Murphy said he was proud of his role in the win, even if it wasn’t as heroic as McGuire’s efforts on the night.
“To do whatever I can do to help the team is what I’m about,” Murphy said. “And I knew that would help us win. Because I knew Bradshaw was coming up behind me. And they walked him and I knew that bunt was going to help us make it to state.”
Antley credited experience and maturity from all four of his seniors – Hennen, McGuire, Murphy and Bradshaw – for helping the Aggies hold on for the win, alluding to a play in the bottom of the sixth when Hennen blasted a two-out shot to right field that could have given Choudrant a chance at a run save for a brilliant catch by the Hicks rightfielder.
“These guys are almost professionals in the way they approach things mentally,” Antley said. “He knows it might not always go the way it should for him.
“He blasted that shot to right field and the guy just caught it, he just looked at us and said, it happens. Because he knew he had to go out there and pitch. And he went out there and took control and kept those guys from scoring. It’s tough when you’re in a 1-1 ballgame and they get a runner on base. That could be the end of the season right there. But those guys know how to do it. They know how to keep their composure.”
Antley admitted he had a good feeling going into the bottom half of the seventh inning despite the stressful finish.
“It’s fantastic as a spectator,” Antley said. “That was a great ballgame to sit in the stands and watch, but so much to coach. I told them being in a tie ballgame with the 2-3-4 hitters coming up, all seniors, that’s a good spot.”
And he felt that way because of that maturity and experience of his seniors.
“We’ve been in this situation before,” McGuire said. “We live for it. When that time comes, we don’t feel pressure right there. We just get the job done.”