SALEM — Three times Randy Tomlin fetched a fresh arm from the Liberty Christian Academy bullpen.
And three times the LCA pitching staff made their manager look like a genius.
Pearce Howard, Conor Austin and Kyle Horton each pitched the Bulldogs out of jams, helping LCA to a 7-4 win over Great Bridge in the Group 4A baseball semifinals Friday morning at Salem Memorial Ballpark. Hanover’s no-doubt 31-3 afternoon victory over Harrisonburg set up a rematch of the 2016 state title game, which the Hawks won in thrilling fashion, 13-12.
Ever since, LCA has had its sights on revenge.
“We got some vengeance right now,” Howard said. “We’ve got to go after Hanover. … We definitely want them.”
But first, the Bulldogs had to get there. And Howard was a big reason why.
The LCA No. 3-hitter went 3 for 3 with a pair of triples and a double, drove in a run, scored twice and pitched 1 1/3 innings of relief. His second triple — both went in the opposite-field gap, to right-center — sparked a fourth-inning rally that saw the Bulldogs out to a 3-0 lead. When LCA starter Grant Johnson began to run out of gas in the fifth, Howard came in from right field to shut the door, holding the perennially powerful Wildcats to just a run in the frame. In the fifth, Howard was hit on the right forearm by a pitch, again sparking a rally; he came around to score on Jacob Williams’ two-out, two-run single.
“It tightened up a little bit after getting hit there,” Howard said of his right forearm, “but I had my guys to back me up.”
Cue Conor Austin, who worked out of a jam after Howard walked three and allowed two singles in the sixth. Austin fanned Wildcats No. 2-hitter Andrew Harman on a curveball to end the inning.
Howard delivered again in the bottom half, this time with a hustle double to center field that drove in Noah Cook, who led off the inning with a walk. The run was key insurance, but LCA wouldn’t need it. After a leadoff double, a strikeout and a walk, Horton came in from centerfield for a quick final two outs.
“I just went in there and threw strikes,” Horton shrugged, “and good things happened.”
That’s been the MO of the LCA bullpen all year, their coach said.
“We’ve been preparing them for this all year,” Tomlin said of the high-leverage situations.
And offensively, LCA did enough to carry the day. It certainly impressed Great Bridge coach Sean Townsend, who said he keys on five objectives for his hitters each game.
“They did most of them,” Townsend admitted. “They had a big inning on us; they scored first; they answered back when we scored — I mean, they did everything we want our offense to do.”
LCA (22-2) will have to do it again today starting at 1 p.m., especially given the firepower that Hanover displayed in the late semifinal, and the Bulldogs will have to do it with a depleted pitching staff.
But as Tomlin, who has relied on depth all season, pointed out, LCA held another of the state’s finest offenses, in Great Bridge, to just seven hits.
“Obviously, we’d rather not bring three guys in [from the bullpen],” he said. “But if you don’t win today, you don’t move on.”
But they did bring them in.
And move on they did.