- Jeff Miller
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ROUND ROCK, Texas -- A state high school baseball championship was on the line, three outs to go. A coach brought in someone who had not pitched all season to face the top-ranked team in the state.
It seems like fiction, but it worked for Texas High (Texarkana, Texas) in last week's Class 4A final. The Tigers edged the Trojans of Moody (Corpus Christi) 4-3 on a seventh-inning run at Dell Diamond, home of the Triple-A Round Rock Express.
Some backstory will show Tigers coach Glenn Welch's pitching move wasn't quite as wacky as assumed. Senior left-hander Randall Fant, who has signed with the University of Arkansas, limited Moody's potent attack to three runs and three hits through six innings. In the top of the seventh, Texas High pushed across the go-ahead run on singles by senior first baseman Hunter Allday, sophomore third baseman Logan Preston and junior DH Nathan Sorenson.
At that point, Welch told senior center fielder Slade Heathcott, an LSU signee, to head down to the bullpen and get loose. Heathcott is a left-handed pitcher but had not pitched all season after tearing an ACL last football season while playing running back and then injuring a shoulder early in the baseball season diving for a ball in the outfield. Welch said he first talked to Heathcott about pitching about four weeks earlier and that he'd looked good in a few bullpen sessions.
"I looked him square in the eye and asked if he could do it," Welch said. "He said, 'Yeah.' I said, OK, you've got it, buddy.' "
In came Heathcott to making his season pitching debut.
In the bottom of the seventh, Moody senior center fielder A.J. Longoria walked with one out and moved to second base on an infield grounder. With the tying run in scoring position, Heathcott got the final out on a grounder to shortstop.
"I threw strikes, and it happened," Heathcott said a few minutes after the game.
Fant struck out six in improving his record to 10-2 and was voted the game's most valuable player. He argued with Welch to stay on the mound for the final inning but admitted, "It was the right choice."
Moody came into the game ranked No. 2 in the ESPN RISE FAB 50 rankings. The Trojans rallied back from a 3-0 deficit in which they had allowed only one hit but couldn't keep Texas High off the board in the seventh.
"We had a rough start, but we came back from behind, executed a few times," Moody coach Corky Gallegos said. "But in baseball, every day's a different day. Just gotta have breaks."
Heathcott and Fant are sort of the fire and ice of Texas High baseball. Heathcott is boisterous, a flashy player by nature. Fant is quiet and so understated that Welch said some scouts underestimate his work ethic.
"He's been kind of overlooked by a lot of people," Heathcott said of his good friend Fant. "I think he's one of the best pitchers in the state. I knew that if he would just settle down, just stay within himself and throw the ball, it would work out. He threw a hell of a game."
Welch said Fant opened a little wild, which probably helped in the long run.
"No team all year has hit his fastball," Welch said. "The angle is so severe coming off the hill; if he gets [the pitch] down below the belt, it's tough to hit."
Heathcott was drafted by the New York Yankees with the 29th pick in the first round and this week took batting practice before a game at Yankee Stadium. Fant was picked by the Boston Red Sox in the 21st round and said he's scheduled to go to Fenway Park to work out in early July.
"Slade, in the ninth grade you could see he was going to be playing at the next level, which we thought would be college," Welch said. "Never dreamed he could go directly to the pros. Randall was a late bloomer. After ninth grade, he grew six inches and put on some pounds."
Texarkana is located near the northeast corner of Texas, bordering an Arkansas town of the same name and only a few miles from Louisiana and Oklahoma. The Tigers played their entire non-district schedule against teams from Arkansas and Louisiana. They went 10-3 in non-district, 10-2 in winning District 13-4A and 10-1 in the playoffs, losing the opener in the best-of-three regional finals to McKinney North.
Welch, in his seventh season as Texas High's coach, said he had a feeling going into the season that his team could contend for the 4A title. His 2008 Tigers won their district, received a first-round playoff bye and were beaten in the second round.
"You don't take anything for granted, but we thought we had as good a chance as anybody," he said. "I didn't go around saying, 'Hey, we're going to win the state championship.'"
Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When star outfielder Slade Heathcott made his season pitching debut for Texas High (Texarkana) in the Texas 4A title game, no one could have guessed he would shut down highly ranked Moody (Corpus Christi) for the title.