ROUND ROCK – In the last two weeks, the Valley Mills baseball team has won games in a lot of different ways.
The Eagles played clean, shutout baseball in their regional semifinal series, then survived crazy rallies in the regional final to reach the state tournament, never dropping a game along the way.
But Valley Mills’ run was stumped in a rough Class 2A state semifinal as Linden-Kildare handed the Eagles a 5-0 defeat on Wednesday afternoon at Dell Diamond.
Valley Mills committed four errors, leading to all of the Tigers’ runs and canceling out Eagles starting pitcher Chase Keeton’s stellar performance on the state stage.
Keeton struck out 10, including the final batter of every inning, and gave up just three hits and three walks.
However, Valley Mills (28-7) couldn’t get its bats going and had a few hiccups on defense.
“We just didn’t put the ball in play when we needed to,” Keeton said. “The ball fell for them, it didn’t fall for us. That’s unfortunate, but that’s just the game of baseball.”
Linden-Kildare (21-9) advances to the 2A state final to play defending 2A state champion Big Sandy, a 4-1 winner over Albany.
The Tigers took advantage of the opportunities Valley Mills gave them.
Linden-Kildare put two runners on base after back-to-back errors by Valley Mills shortstop Cory McNair and second baseman Eli McNair in the top of the third inning. Tigers catcher Duece Schuler made the Eagles pay by hitting a single to right field to score Chase Bynum and notch Linden-Kildare’s only RBI of the contest.
The Tigers held on to that 1-0 lead through six innings as starting pitcher Jacob Owen held back the Valley Mills offense.
The Eagles had a chance to tie the game in the bottom of the fourth when Tyler Philipp hit a one-out single up the middle.
Philipp moved to second base on a weird play as Cooper Buxkemper, thinking he had drawn a walk, headed for first base on a 3-1 count. The Tigers caught on late and attempted to throw out Philipp as he trotted to second base. But Linden-Kildare shortstop Dalton Alford dropped the ball when applying the tag and suddenly Valley Mills had a runner in scoring position.
That was a short-lived situation, though. A pitch later, Alford snuck in behind Philipp, caught a pick-off throw from Owen, and applied the tag for the second out of the inning. Owen struck out Buxkemper to end the threat.
“That was a great move the kid made and the kid made a quick tag,” Keeton said. “You can’t do anything about it. They just beat us right there.”
Valley Mills’ chances to rally back shrunk in the top of the seventh when Linden-Kildare tacked on four runs.
Tigers centerfielder Trent Wert scored from second on an error on a grounder on the infield. The Tigers went on to load the bases and first baseman Nic Kunze cleared them by lofting a deep fly ball to right. Valley Mills rightfielder Dylan Sumpter, who was playing in shallow right to prevent a run from scoring on a fly out, sprinted and caught up with Kunze’s shot. But the ball popped out of Sumpter’s glove. Kunze darted around to third base and, when he got there, Linden-Kildare had a 5-run edge.
As if to make a point, the Tigers got a sparkling defensive play to help retire Valley Mills in the bottom of the seventh. Second baseman Bynum ranged to his left and stretched out to make a diving stop of a Buxkemper grounder. Bynum popped up and made the throw to first for the second out of the inning. Owen got Eagles first baseman Cooper Lane to ground out to shortstop to end the game.
Valley Mills was making its sixth appearance at the state tournament and first since 2005.
The loss in the state semifinals marked the final game for Eagles coach Shane Keeton to coach his son, Chase Keeton, at Valley Mills. Chase Keeton has signed to play at McLennan Community College next season.
But Shane Keeton said he hopes the program can build on this trip to the final four.
“This is something that we should and could do almost every year,” Keeton said. “I hope the bar is set high.”