VAN ALSTYNE — There are choices and there are decisions and what the Panthers are doing when they have to pick a starting pitcher in the playoffs is the best of all worlds.
This is the case when your entire staff has an earned run average hovering around one and six of the seven hurlers have ERAs at 2.00 or under.
“We’ve got plenty of guys we can depend on,” Van Alstyne head coach Jimmy Haynes said. “We prepared for this from the first day of practice. We made sure our kids knew you might not pitch a lot in the regular season or district, but now your name is going to get called and be ready.”
With three sweeps under their belt, the Panthers will look to continue pushing the right buttons as Van Alstyne (25-4) faces Atlanta (19-8) in a Class 3A Region II semifinal series at Emory Rains. Game 1 is at 7 p.m. on Thursday with Games 2 and 3 at 4 p.m. on Saturday.
The winner will face either Gunter or Big Sandy Harmony in the region final next week. It is the first region semis appearance for Van Alstyne since the Panthers were Class 3A state runner-up in 2016.
“Watching those guys when we were freshmen, they were always level-headed and knew what to do,” senior pitcher Chandler David said. “We watched them do their thing and I think it’s helped us.”
What helps is that over the past 10 games, VA has allowed a total of 12 runs. It starts with David, who is 12-1 with a 0.65 ERA and 109 strikeouts in 75 innings, and continues to classmate Rhett Gallagher and junior Samuel Tormos.
Gallagher has a 0.20 ERA in 35.2 innings with six wins, two saves and 56 strikeouts while Tormos is 5-1 with a 1.6o ERA and 42 Ks.
“I think what’s best with our group is we’re not worried about ourselves. We don’t care when we get the ball but when we do we want to finish it,” Gallagher said. “We all have different roles and we just want to win, whether it’s us pitching or with our sticks.”
Beyond that trio is senior Tyler Wilson, juniors Zach Smith and David Terrill and sophomore Jordan Caldwell. Add it all up and it amounts to a 1.19 ERA in nearly 200 innings.
“The three guys, everyone looks at them,” Haynes said. “I have all the confidence in the world in Tyler Wilson, who’s pitching as hard as anybody we have right now, Jordan Caldwell, who was my No. 3 until Sam got out of basketball, and Zach showed last week what he could do.”
The Panthers have yet to lose in the postseason, sweeping their first three opponents — starting with Ponder and then Emory Rains before doing the same to Pottsboro last week.
“Usually we know what the plan is at the beginning of the week and then we see how things go in Game 1,” David said. “We haven’t had to adjust yet.”
Van Alstyne won the series opener over the Cardinals, 7-4, in 10 innings after tying the game with a three-run sixth inning before getting three more runs in the 10th. Gallagher was 3-for-5 with double, drove in a run and scored twice, Terrill was 2-for-4 with a double and three RBI and Smith threw 5.1 innings of hitless relief, striking out nine and walking one to get the win.
Then in the clincher, the Panthers earned a 4-1 victory as David allowed an unearned run on two hits with five strikeouts and three walks. Tormos homered, Smith was 3-for-3 and drove in a run, Wilson was 2-for-3 and scored and Conner Loftice singled, walked, drove in a run and scored.
In six playoff contests, five of the opponents have been held to two runs or fewer. Dating back to district play, only two of past 14 foes have scored more than two runs and none more than four.
“Whoever it is, they want whoever’s on the mound to be successful,” Haynes said. “That’s the attitude it’s been all year.”
Atlanta advanced to the fourth round for the first time since 1998 by rallying past White Oak last week. The Rabbits lost the series opener, 6-1, before taking a double-header, 8-2 and 14-2 in six innings.
In the deciding contest, Max Ebarb was 3-for-4 with a triple, three RBI and scored and threw five innings to get the win, Kolby Mason was 3-for-3, drove in a run and scored, Jake Thompson was 2-for-4 with a double, two RBI and scored twice, Cooper McClure was 2-for-4 with two RBI and scored twice and Hunter Allen was 2-for-3 with two doubles, drove in a run and scored.
Atlanta, which was the District 14-3A champion, swept Prairiland to open the playoffs and then did the same against Troup in the area round.
The Rabbits, who have made the postseason three straight years with the previous two coming in 4A, opened the season by losing six of seven games before going on an 18-2 run since early March and won in the postseason for the first time since 2009. Atlanta hadn’t been to the region quarterfinals since 2003.
“They’re like us — five or six guys who can throw. All in the 80s primarily,” Haynes said. “They’ve had 20 extra-base hits in the playoffs so far so they’ve got some power. I think if we’re pitching like the last four playoff games, we’ll be alright. We’re going to compete with them.”