In a District 14-5A showdown with heavy playoff implications, Joshua beat Cleburne, 10-0, in five innings Tuesday night as the Owls punched their playoff ticket while eliminating the Yellow Jackets.
It was Joshua’s first win over Cleburne since 2016, which was also the last time the Jackets missed the playoffs. The Owls improved to 7-4 in district play, in a three-way tie for second place and a half game out of first place with one game remaining, while the Jackets fell to 5-6 in league play and out of the playoff picture.
“I can’t put into words how proud I am of my boys,” Joshua Coach David Sheppard said. “You come in here and you’re expecting a battle to the end. I talked to our kids before the game and said you’ve got to expect there’s going to be some good times and some bad, and we’ve got to fight through adversity and that’s the biggest thing. Early in the game, I think both teams were trying to learn what the [strike] zone was and feel that out. ... The boys did a heck of a job. Cleburne’s a very well-coached team with a hall of fame coach so to be able to have a game like that against them, I feel very fortunate.”
Despite entering the 2021 season as the No. 1-ranked team in Class 5A by txhighschoolbaseball.com, the Jackets (22-8) will miss the playoffs for only the second time in 13 seasons.
“It’s definitely a big disappointment for us,” Cleburne Coach Ross Taylor said. “We’re trying to count it up; we’ve played Joshua two times a year for the 24 years I’ve been here and we can only count a handful of times we’ve been beat by them. But to get beat like we got beat? It’s like every wheel on the bus fell off. We made mental mistakes. We made physical mistakes. We made a physical mistake and let it affect us and made a mental mistake right after. It gets to a point where you can’t hardly say anything.”
Cleburne had the game’s first great scoring opportunity as the Jackets had runners on second and third base with only one out in the bottom of the third, but as has been the case all season, Cleburne couldn’t get the clutch hit with runners in scoring position, similar to when the Jackets had the bases loaded with no outs vs. Midlothian on April 20 and came away with zero runs.
Joshua pitcher Dylan Darnall got a strike-out and a fly-out to leave two runners in scoring position stranded.
“I don’t know how you explain it,” Taylor said. “... Our biggest problem is sometimes we try to do too much when a single up the middle scores two. But it’s like it’s all or nothing with this group of guys, for whatever reason. It’s like it’s, ‘I’m either banging it off the wall or nothing.’”
After getting out of that jam, the Owls made the first move in the top of the fourth inning with a span of four base hits in five at-bats, including three base hits in a span of four pitches. Darnall got things started with a one-out single. After a ground-out, Aidan Lee hit an RBI double for the game’s first run, then Blaine Marek followed with an RBI double of his own before Hayden Chaffin added an RBI single for a 3-0 lead.
After a scoreless bottom of the fourth for Cleburne, the Owls put the game away with a seven-run top of the fifth inning. Joshua scored those seven runs on just four base hits while four Cleburne errors proved to be the primary culprits. Three of the Owls’ runs that inning came directly on Cleburne fielding errors. Chaffin hit a two-run single to make it 8-0 and Gio Calamia added a two-run triple for his second hit of the inning to cap the scoring.
“It was like a nightmare, really,” Taylor said of the top of the fifth. “You’re going, ‘How can stuff like this happen?’ That’s been this team this year, we’re either playing really, really good or we make errors and they happen together — bang, bang, bang.”
After Cleburne’s Ethan Flores and Kevin Duran drew a pair of two-out walks in the bottom of the fifth inning, Sheppard brought Calamia in to close it out. With Cleburne needing a base hit to score a run and avoid the run-rule loss, Calamia got a fly-out to center to end it.
Calamia went 4-for-4 with two RBIs and a run, Lee was 2-for-3 with one RBI and two runs and Chaffin was 2-for-3 with three RBIs.
“This was a whole team win,” Sheppard said. “Everybody in the lineup contributed. Everybody in the lineup did something to help us win the game, whether it was taking the extra base, working the count deep; we did a lot of the little things well.”
Darnall pitched 4 2/3 innings with four hits and three walks allowed with five strikeouts to earn the shutout win.
Regan Hanna and Brady Douthitt each went 1-for-2 while Duran was 0-for-1 with two walks to lead Cleburne. It was the sixth time in 11 district games Cleburne has been held to two or fewer runs; the Jackets are 0-6 in those games.
Tuesday’s win over Cleburne was a memorable one for Sheppard, his first victory over Cleburne in four seasons as the Owls’ head coach. Joshua’s 10-0 win also avenged a frustrating 5-2 loss to Cleburne on March 26 where three Joshua errors allowed the Jackets to score four runs in the seventh inning.
“I was talking to our new AD about it, about how we were 0-5 vs. them since I’ve been here,” Sheppard said. “We’ve had some success against those guys since I’ve been here but it’s the one team you’re trying to get the monkey off your back type thing. It feels really good because I have a lot of respect for them and we’ve played some tight games in the past.
“You hate to go back and play ‘what ifs,’ but you go back and look and there’s two or three innings and we could be out of the race or we could be 8-4. It’s one of those things in this district where everybody plays well so you feel fortunate to win any night.”
The Owls are scheduled to host Midlothian on Friday with a chance at a co-district championship.
“We play Midlothian and if we’re fortunate enough to play well, maybe we can play for a district championship and that’s what we’re looking at,” Sheppard said.
Six of Cleburne’s eight losses on the season came in district play; the Jackets are 17-2 in non-district play.
Cleburne will close out its season at 7 p.m. Friday in Ennis. Taylor said he hopes this year can provide valuable lessons for the younger Jackets moving forward.
“There are a lot of people who wish they were 22-8 but for us it’s not a great year,” Taylor said. “There’s not much to come out of it except learn something and move on. For these seniors, I don’t know what they get to learn from it. But maybe the young guys can learn something from it; I hope they learn something from it.”