Every baseball coach has a philosophy about Game 1 of a best-of-three postseason series. He can use his ace to immediately to set the tone but also understands he can risk falling into a hole.
He can hold on to his ace and use him for the second game to either save the season and even the series or close out the series.
Grapevine coach Steve Hutcherson prefers the former with his ace, senior right-hander Connor Neuman. Each time, Neuman has delivered.
In fact, in Game 1 of the Class 5A Region I quarterfinal series against Aledo on May 18, Hutcherson saw a different Neuman. Following the 90-minute lightning delay, Neuman struck out seven of the last eight batters he faced as Grapevine won, 2-0.
Never miss a local story.
“I have just really tried to stay down in the zone,” Neuman said. “When I am at my best, I can throw any pitch in any count.”
The Mustangs (28-10) eventually survived a hard-fought series against the Bearcats in three games. The defending 5A state champions are in the Region I semifinals against Amarillo at Abilene Christian University. The best-of-three series begins at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Following Friday’s off day because of Amarillo’s graduation, the series resumes at noon Saturday. A potential deciding third game would follow.
Neuman, who has signed with Louisiana Tech, has been pretty much unhittable in the postseason. He’s 3-0 with a earned-run average of zero, allowing one unearned run in 18 innings. Neuman has thrown consecutive shutouts against Sherman and Aledo.
“I think he has realized the importance of Game 1,” Grapevine coach Steve Hutcherson said. “When he goes out there, he’s going to go with great effort on each pitch. When we came out of the delay, his first pitch was a slider and it had even more velocity. He wanted the ball even more when we were waiting. That was going to be his game.”
Neuman (7-2) has been pretty economical with his pitch counts so that if the coaching staff needed him elsewhere in a series, it could have used him. Against Aledo, he threw only 85 pitches.
With the new Texas high school pitch count rules in effect, pitchers are allowed to throw 110 pitches total in a postseason series. That can be divided in any way. In Neuman’s case, he was pretty close to being used in the finale against the Bearcats. It turned out to be not necessary.
The off day on Friday won’t impact Neuman’s availability for Saturday. But he’s getting the ball on Thursday against a Sandies team that has been pretty fierce offensively through its first three series.
“Game 1 is a big one to get,” Neuman said. “It sets the tone and that is when I throw the best. I like the big pressure because I compete harder.”
Amarillo, which moved down from Class 6A to 5A in 2016-2017, was in the 2016 state tournament when it fell in the semifinals. The Sandies have rolled through the first three weekends scoring 58 runs in seven games. That’s a little more than eight runs per game.
Grapevine’s pitching staff could be the deepest Amarillo has faced. Amarillo’s lineup could be one of the deepest the Mustangs have faced.
“They’ve beaten some good teams and have some great bats,” Hutcherson said. “We just have to do our job and keep the ball in play. The Aledo series was a little like our series against [Wichita Falls Rider] last year. It was pretty intense. The common denominator is that our kids never seemed to panic.”