Kyle Smith easily could have slumped his shoulders, sulked and stewed.
However, the Willard High School senior refused to.
And instead of feeling sorry for himself, the right-hander later rescued his baseball teammates and helped push them one step closer to the Class 5 Final Four.
Smith socked the tying double and moved the eventual go-ahead run to third base in a four-run sixth inning rally – and then covered the final two outs in relief – as the Willard Tigers beat the Hillcrest Hornets 5-4 in the Class 5, District 10 championship Thursday night at Tom Greenwade Field.
Not that the night figured to end that way for Smith, one of the top pitchers in the Central Ozark Conference. He got hooked after pitching only three innings, in which Smith burned through 100 pitches and walked seven.
“I got out of the game and I said, ‘I can’t let this affect me the rest of the game. They need me at shortstop,’” Smith said. “But I got that hit and it loosened me up. And then going into the top of the seventh, Coach said, ‘Kyle, can you close this out?’ I said, ‘Heck yeah I can.’”
It didn’t end without drama. Hillcrest loaded the bases after Brant Schaffitzel worked a two-out walk – he fouled off four two-strike pitches – before Smith retired the final batter on a flyout to center fielder Tyler Pfieffer, who had driven in the winning run.
This after Smith struck out the first batter once back on the mound, after already inheriting two runners – including the potential tying run at third base.
Call it one of many remarkable storylines on a night full of them.
For one, Hillcrest starting pitcher Thomas Barrett, in his first appearance in six weeks after suffering a broken knuckle in his glove hand, covered 7 2/3 innings combined in the semifinal and final – muzzling Willard for most of 5 1/3 innings.
That, and Willard coach Scott McGee for the first time in his nine seasons here re-inserted a starting pitcher to close out a game. That being Smith, who will be named the COC Pitcher of the Year on Friday. Smith had beaten six state-ranked teams this year.
“This team four weeks ago would have just folded up shop once we fell behind,” said McGee, whose team won its fourth district championship in five seasons, despite three pitchers issuing 11 total walks to Hillcrest. He later added, “Kyle is the ultimate competitor and he loves big moments. I thought, ‘If we are going to lose it, let’s lose it with our guy.’”
The Tigers’ rally took just about everybody in the sixth. Dalton Morrow led with a single to center before Garyn Stewart energized the lineup with a run-scoring double to the gap in left.
A flyout and single then ended Barrett’s night, before Ben Morris walked, setting up Smith’s tying double against Brett Letterman.
Morris then scored the eventual winning run from third base on Pfiefer’s single to Hillcrest’s shortstop, with Hillcrest playing a drawn-in infield. The throw went to first base, as Morris was already three-quarters of the way down the line to home plate.
Stewart’s double proved to be a catalyst, McGee said.
“We knew we had to get runners on. We threatened some, but hadn’t really came out with much,” Stewart said. “(Barrett) had been changing it up on us pretty good. We didn’t really know what was going to happen.”
For Hillcrest, the ending was bittersweet. The Hornets made much progress this season and finished the season 15-15, bouncing back from an 8-20 record from last season. They also rallied to beat Lebanon 6-4 in the district semifinal, with Devin Ryan and Tanner Ryan supplying back-to-back, run-scoring singles in the fifth.
Against Willard, Barrett’s mix of curves and fastballs kept the Tigers at bay, and right fielder Kamron Grant helped Hillcrest’s confidence by turning an inning-ending double play when he caught a flyout and threw out a runner at the plate. Letterman also gutted it out in relief, despite fighting off an illness, according to his coach.
But the Hornets, despite drawing 11 walks, stranded 16 runners. They left the bases loaded five times, including in the ninth inning. They just couldn’t get the big hit. Not against Smith, or Willard relievers Matthew Eleiott and sophomore Tanner Norris.
“I couldn’t be more proud of a bunch of guys than I am now,” Hillcrest coach Ryan Schaffitzel. “I stuck with (Barrett) as long as I could. But he’s a junior and his arm is more important than a district championship.”
His words came as Willard celebrated the district championship. Stewart was the first to bum-rush Smith in the initial dogpile, and soon families were on the field taking pictures.
But the road continues for the Tigers, now heading to a sectional match-up against Jefferson City. That game is Tuesday at Willard.
“We just knew if we kept playing and kept it close that, at some point, we’d get a shot,” Smith said. “We felt confident that we were going to start hitting. And that’s what happened.”