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‘Horns one win from postseason

Jon MaletzAspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times
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ASPEN A group of Longhorns hoisted starter Zack Schultz into the air following the conclusion of Thursday’s game in Aspen. It seemed appropriate, considering Schultz helped carry his teammates for much of the game against the rival Skiers.The junior picked up his first win in arguably his team’s most pivotal game. He scattered four hits and two runs in five innings, and the Longhorns continually applied pressure at the plate and on the bases. They scored at least two runs in four of five innings and avenged an earlier loss to the Skiers with a 13-2 victory in a game shortened to five innings because of the mercy rule.Basalt (8-6 overall, 7-5 3A Western Slope) is now tied with idle Gunnison for the conference’s fourth and final state tournament bid. The two teams meet Saturday for a doubleheader in El Jebel.”I knew it would make things a lot easier on us if we won today,” Schultz said. “I wasn’t there the first time we lost, so I was excited to be out there.”

The Longhorns will clinch the program’s second-ever tournament berth with one win Saturday. They own the tiebreaker by virtue of their split in the season series with league leader Olathe, which swept Gunnison.Basalt had the look of a team battling for its playoff lives. While they didn’t record a hit in the first inning off Aspen starter Matt Beirne, four of the first five Longhorns batters reached base; three scored by virtue of two Skiers errors. “We got to them right away, and when you have a young pitcher on the mound who hasn’t had many innings, that allows him to breathe a little easier,” Basalt coach Rick Ryan said. “We got on the roll. When you start booting the ball, it’s contagious for any team. When you’re behind, you start pressing.”Schultz worked out of some trouble in the bottom of the first. Leadoff hitter Nicky Anastas singled up the middle, advanced to second on a passed ball, then third on a balk. After a groundout, he scored on Taylor Huske’s single to center. Jeff LaGrua walked to put the tying runs on base with just one out; Schultz induced flyouts to right field and third base to end the threat.The Skiers (4-11, 3-8), who were mathematically eliminated from tournament contention after Wednesday’s loss at Cedaredge, could do little against Schultz the rest of the way. They’ve been outscored 30-2 in their last two games.

“There’s a lot of excuses we could come up with,” Lilleberg said. “But we just didn’t hit. This team has a long way to go.”Schultz worked around a one-out walk in the second by striking out Anderson Cole and Anastas in succession, then retired the side in order in the third. Aspen scored once more in the fourth when Cole singled home Andy Conarroe but, by that point, the deficit was six.The Longhorns recorded just eight hits off Beirne and Conarroe, who pitched the fifth, but made them count. D’Anna drove in Colin Matheney on a triple to right field, then Cory Ostrander hit a sacrifice fly in the third to stretch the advantage to four. One inning later, Basalt strung together four hits to produce three runs. Bryan Mason drove in Connor Rakowski with his second double of the game, then Johnson lined a run-scoring single to right.Johnson, who hit three consecutive inside-the-park home runs Saturday against Coal Ridge, advanced from first to third on a passed ball with two outs; John Komula brought Johnson home with a single down the line in right.

“Rory did the same thing last year. He was automatic in RBI situations,” Ryan said. “I think his three home runs Saturday made him realize he was capable of doing what he did last season.”Johnson’s two-run single in the fifth helped fuel a five-running inning as the Longhorns extended their lead to 11. The Skiers committed three miscues in the inning.Aspen scored nine runs in its final two at-bats to stun the Longhorns, 13-10, on April 10. There would be no comeback this time around. Schultz retired the side in order in the fifth. He deflected a sure single up the middle off the bat of Jeff LaGrua right to Rakowski at shortstop, who threw on to first to seal the win – Basalt’s fifth straight. Ryan said all season he wanted the season’s final two games with Gunnison to matter. Saturday, he’ll get his wish.”They hit the ball well and we play good defense, so it will be our strength versus theirs,” said Ryan, who will have his ace and five-game winner Johnson well-rested. Johnson hasn’t pitched since April 17. “We have to go out there and play like we have to win both.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is jmaletz@aspentimes.com


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