There was only one blemish on Howard’s record this season entering Monday: a 3-2 loss at Mt. Hebron on March 27. The Lions missed opportunities to score late in that game but ultimately couldn’t get it done against Vikings left-handed pitcher Magnus Dunn.
When the two teams squared off again in Ellicott City on a cold Monday afternoon, the stakes were much higher than just bragging rights, as the winner would take sole possession atop the Howard County standings with less than a week remaining in the regular season.
The first half of the game was much like the first, with Dunn dominating and the Vikings holding a 2-1 lead through four innings, but the Lions were determined not to repeat the same mistakes they did two months ago. The high-powered Howard offense finally pulled through with a five-run fifth inning and a four-run sixth to beat Mt. Hebron, 10-3, to win their 14th straight game.
The Lions (12-1 Howard County, 16-1 overall) lost a share of the county title last year by losing in the final regular season game but can win the league outright if they get past Centennial, Hammond and Wilde Lake later this week.
“Everybody was up for this game today,” Howard coach Nick Hoffner said. “Everyone knew this was a big game.”
Senior pitcher Gabe Delgado allowed hits to the first two batters of the game and both came around to score, but the lanky right hander settled in and kept Mt. Hebron (10-2, 10-4) off balance the rest of the way with a commanding curveball-fastball combination. He allowed four hits, one walk and three runs while striking out eight across 5.1 innings, while Brian Jakubek and Austin Foard threw 1.2 scoreless innings in relief.
Dunn, meanwhile, was just as good. He punched out nine batters and allowed just three hits but he hit the first two batters in the fifth inning and soon after a high pitch count forced the Vikings’ hand. And once the Lions got to the bullpen, they couldn’t be contained.
After a fielding error scored the tying run and a fielders choice plated the go-ahead run with one out in the frame, a walk to Delgado loaded the bases and another to Aidan O’Connor made it 4-2. Two batters later, leadoff batter Alex Campbell (3-5, 3 RBIs) blooped a two-run single to left.
Hoffner said he thought his team struck out a few too many times early in the game — Dunn punched out the side in the fourth — but also noted his team was grinding out at-bats and elevating Dunn’s pitch count. He finished the day by allowing five runs — three earned — but also hit three batters and threw more than 100 pitches to record just 13 outs.
“We were just battling out there. Obviously I think we wore him down a little bit as the game went on. That was big, and then we got into the bullpen and were able to have some more good at-bats and some clutch hits late in the game. It’s always nice when you can do that.”
Howard’s bench and base running has been exceptional all season and was again on Monday. Ben Fader came in as a pinch hitter and had an RBI in the fifth inning and an RBI single and a stolen base in the sixth. Nate Howell had two stolen bases and Chase Eberwein had one as pinch runners, and Cody Robinson walked and scored in the sixth off the bench.
As for the starters, Will Simmons sparked a four-run insurance inning in the sixth with a triple, and Shayan Kassiri, who was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in his first three at-bats, sealed the game with a bases-clearing double to left. Everyone in the lineup reached base at least once and they stole seven bases.
“We have multiple contributors on this team. It’s always somebody different. I wouldn’t say it was one guy today; we had eight or nine guys who had key at-bats or made a key play defensively or had a stolen base or something,” Hoffner said. “... We’re getting contributions for everyone and even our bench is trying to star ready and take advantage of opportunities when they get them.”
Mt. Hebron jumped on top early thanks to an RBI groundout by Jimmy Jaecksch and an RBI sacrifice fly by Tommy Fitzpatrick, who also had an RBI single in the sixth inning. Aside from that, however, it managed just two additional hits in the game and stranded eight runners overall.
“Make no bones about it, I think the better team won today, but we were right in that game and the kids should feel — my hope walking away from this is that we can play with anybody in the state,” Mt. Hebron coach Brian Culley said.
Howard (12-1, 16-1) — 10, Mt. Hebron (10-2, 10-4) — 3
........... 123 456 7 R-H-E
MH ... 200 001 0 3-5-1
Ho ..... 010 054 0 10-6-1