TALENT — Such a contest doesn't always go this way, but Phoenix and Hidden Valley lived up to the hype befitting a matchup of the state's top two Class 4A baseball teams on Thursday.
And, in the process, they proved the Skyline Conference will be a force to be reckoned with come state playoff time.
Riding the dominating pitching of Jordan Lewis and an offensive attack that refuses to give in, the No. 2-ranked Pirates edged the top-ranked Mustangs, 3-1, in a nip-and-tuck battle at Hagler-James Field.
"It's just nice to know that two teams in the Skyline are Nos. 1 and 2 and get to go at each other like that," said Hidden Valley coach Travis Osborne, whose team had its 13-game winning streak snapped.
Osborne especially had to like how his Mustangs (15-2, 6-1 Skyline) stood toe-to-toe with the more experienced Pirates and actually took a 1-0 lead into the fifth inning before things broke down for Hidden Valley in a three-run frame by Phoenix.
Lewis struck out five of the first six Mustangs and appeared to be on cruise control with two outs in the third inning before walking No. 9 hitter Dylan Armaniao. The third baseman then stole second base on the next pitch, and his wheels were set in motion moments later when Eddie Lord poked a single into short center field.
Kory Locken came up firing home for Phoenix (15-2, 7-0), but the throw hit a lip in the grass and took a bad hop over catcher Mike Shepherd's shoulder to allow Armaniao to score.
Hidden Valley senior Casey Albright, a transfer from Grants Pass High, made that 1-0 lead stand up thanks to Houdini-like escapes in the second and third innings. Phoenix had the bases loaded on both occasions but failed to take advantage. The only ball put in play in that setting was a check-swing comebacker to Albright that he innocently flipped to his catcher Clint Sager to close out the second.
"We couldn't get that big hit, and these kids have been hitting the ball well all year," said Phoenix coach Joe Hagler. "(Albright's) not going to overpower people but he has an assortment of pitches. Sometimes a guy that's around the plate all the time, those guys you bang around. But he's wild enough and throws enough strikes that it made it kinda tough. We couldn't get settled in."
All that changed, however, in the fifth inning for Phoenix.
Locken drew a leadoff walk and advanced to second when Andrew George slapped a single through the left side of the infield. Knowing he needed to do something to snap a slump that had seen Phoenix go 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position and eventually strand six runners, Ryan Robinson stepped up and slipped a single into short center field.
"I was just thinking about hitting the opposite way, getting a nice solid swing and just see what happens," the Phoenix shortstop said later.
Robinson's effort put the runners in motion but Locken looked as if he was prepared to stop at third base until a bobble by Mike Suthann on the pickup of Robinson's roller allowed him to score the tying run.
"That was huge for us," said Hagler of Robinson's clutch single. "He's been big for us and has been hitting the ball very, very well."
With just that one innocent at-bat, you could see the pride swell up in the Pirate dugout.
"After that I felt like we're getting going, turning the train around," said Robinson, who is hitting over .500 this season. "It kinda let everything open up for us to do what we wanted from there."
Jake Murphy followed with a poke to right field to re-load the bases and Lewis smacked an RBI single to center field to put Phoenix ahead to stay at 2-1. Jordan Decker's sacrifice fly plated the third run of the inning off Albright.
"Casey's the one guy that can probably keep these guys off balance," said Osborne. "He's got a lot of movement on his ball, whether it's his fastball or curveball or slider. I think he did a great job except for one inning, and even then it could've been a lot worse. The bottom line is we didn't put the ball in play for him."
The left-handed Lewis had a lot to do with that, striking out 12 and scattering three hits in seven innings. The senior walked only three batters, and two of those came in the seventh when he tried to amp it up a little in order to close out the ballgame.
When push came to shove, though, Lewis was able to deny the Mustangs despite getting into a couple tough jams in the fifth and seventh. The fifth-inning effort was especially impressive, with Lewis notching three straight strikeouts after Hidden Valley had advanced runners to second and third following a fielding error and a single and stolen base by Lane Radford.
"He's just amazing," said Robinson of Lewis, who had a 1.20 ERA entering the game. "He just goes out there and battles and focuses and does a great job. We know until we can score the runs, Jordan will keep us in the game."
After the game, Osborne could only tip his hat to Lewis and ponder what might have been for his Mustangs.
"We had chances with guys in position," said Osborne. "Against someone like Jordan, we've got to capitalize on that stuff. I know he's tough, but I know we definitely could do a lot better as far as putting the ball in play."
Robinson, George and Nick Workman each had two hits to pace the Pirates, while Ryan Hayden joined Lord and Radford in getting the lone hits for the Mustangs.
"These guys battled hard," said Hagler of his squad. "Every time we play I believe we're going to score. It doesn't matter who we play. I think these kids are athletic enough and competitive enough and have a good plate approach that they're going to get some runs."
Hidden Valley 001 000 0 — 1 3 2
Phoenix 000 030 x — 3 8 2
Albright and Sager; Lewis and Shepherd. W — Lewis (6-1). L — Albright (6-1).
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail email@example.com