Competitive. Tense. Spirited. Animated. Edgy.

Those are all words I’d use to describe the three playoff games I saw this past week, and I believe they’d apply to many of the playoff series across the state. Teams that advanced undoubtedly earned it because it’s not hard to look back and find drama, close scores and thrilling winner-take-all game threes as high school baseball in the Lone Star State moved one week closer to state tournaments. Central Texas afforded me opportunities to see some outstanding matchups between Austin-area teams and some big names from around San Antonio. Let’s get to it:

Smithson Valley vs. Austin Westlake

WESTLAKE HIGH SCHOOL – Apparently, Westlake can’t play in a normal playoff game because the Chaps often found themselves competing and pushing an opponent to the limit in extra innings. The Thursday matchup against Smithson Valley I saw was no different and that set the tone and established a blueprint for an extremely competitive, back-and-forth series Smithson Valley eventually won.

Westlake put pressure on Smithson Valley by winning Thursday’s series-opener and I again had a chance to watch 2024 Texas commitment Chance Covert on the mound. It was more of the same. Covert again looked like one of the more intriguing left-handed pitchers in the 2024 class because of his blend of projection, strike-throwing with multiple pitches and outstanding demeanor. He simply doesn’t get rattled and carries himself like he is going to win each pitcher-hitter battle.

While Covert doesn’t overpower hitters currently with a fastball that can get into the mid-80s in the early innings, the lefty again mixed speeds well, showcasing a promising changeup that could end up being a future plus pitch and two different breaking balls with the bigger, slower curve (67-69 MPH) used effectively to keep hitters off-balance. Pitching with traffic on the bases early never bothers Covert, and you look up and there he is again in the seventh inning (he pitched 6.2 innings) getting outs against one of the best lineups in the state.

Covert was opposed by another talented sophomore, Smithson Valley two-way standout Zach Gingrich. A very athletic two-way player who smacked a really hard single from the left side and could end up a heavily recruiting position player, Gingrich touched 85 MPH early with a fastball that occasionally showed some downward life. His breaking ball (72-73 MPH) bounced some between shapes and looked like a slurve that occasionally caused Westlake problems; earlier this year, it was a harder, true slider at 75-77 MPH. His strike-throwing wasn’t as good as the first time I saw him, but his athleticism strongly suggests that should improve in the future. Regardless, Gingrich remains one of the most intriguing sophomores in the area.

Joining him on that sophomore list for Smithson Valley is right-handed pitcher MJ Espinoza, who has a 0.00 ERA in 12.0 playoff innings. The right-hander has the makings of a physical power-pitcher with a fastball that already gets into the upper-80s regularly. As for the junior class, physical right-handed hitting catcher Ethan Gonzalez had a quiet night at the plate, but threw out two runners stealing. He registered a 1.94 pop time with an accurate, strong arm to easily throw out a runner at second base.

Athletic, physical right-handed hitting shortstop David De Hoyos (junior) had a hard RBI knock to left field. The two-sport standout continued to show a good blend of strength and athleticism.

Pitchers throwing to Kasen Wells beware: the left-handed hitting senior will jump all over any first-pitch heaters left over the heart of the plate. He just missed a couple of pitches, including a towering fly out to right field. A Texas A&M signee, Wells has caught fire at the right time for his team.

While Smithson Valley enjoyed the late-game drama later in the series, Westlake had its moment Thursday. Uncommitted senior Cole May smashed a homer so hard off the scoreboard that its lights temporality stopped working correctly. Built like a bruising middle linebacker with some explosive power/actions and athletic bounce in his step, May showed a short swing and quick, flat barrel path through the zone to hammer a line drive rocket. He’s currently uncommitted.

Major Ritchie played the role of hero in the bottom of the eighth inning with a walk-off double down the right field line. Another uncommitted senior, Ritchie played a pivotal role for Westlake this season and came through in the clutch multiple times, including on this throw in a rivalry game victory against Lake Travis.

Lake Travis vs. Johnson

DRIPPING SPRINGS HIGH SCHOOL – The story of the game, won by Claudia Taylor Johnson 3-2 in thrilling fashion, was the job Johnson did on the mound to keep its season alive. It wasn’t flashy. It wasn’t dominant. But it was extremely competitive and effective against one of the best lineups in the state.

Junior right-hander Barrett Johnson threw his fastball 81-84 MPH early and held that velocity into the 7th inning. He was effective because he threw strikes and commanded his fastball well to both sides of the plate, which allowed his catcher to set up off the corners and try to get Lake Travis hitters to extend the zone when down in the count. Johnson also mixed in a curveball for a strike and showed a changeup occasionally to give hitters something to think about. Many pitchers his age would have been bothered by the opponent and situation but Johnson was neither.

With big Cole Johnson up, who smashed a three-run bomb the game before, Johnson called on sophomore right-hander Ty Walton to record the final out with two runners on base. Unfazed, the righty, who plays for Alamo Drillers in the summer, punched out Lake Travis’ most feared power hitter with a swing-and-miss fastball to end the game. Physical right-handed hitting junior Mason Krahn had an early opposite-field RBI single as part of a three-run first inning, which led to an uncharacteristically short outing for Lake Travis starting pitcher OJ Gonzalez.

A model of efficient success all season, Gonzalez, an uncommitted junior, watched a couple hard grounders beat gloves through the infield, bunt and infield singles and an error behind him in the first innings. He wasn’t as bad as his short outing would indicate, but I’m sure Lake Travis had to be a bit surprised because of how steady he’s been all season. Fortunately for the Cavs, they were able to call on junior right-hander Jackson Baker.

While Baker doesn’t yet possess the strike-throwing and control his teammate Gonzalez has, he does possess better pure stuff because when his sinker and slider come out of the hand the right way, they often overpower high school hitters. Baker, an impressive athlete with room to fill out, touched 89 MPH and a few sinkers flashed as plus offerings with late arm-side run that at times danced so much they were hard to catch. Occasionally, his slider was as hard as 78 MPH with tight, sharp break that overmatched right-handed hitters; other times, Baker took a little off the pitch and used it earlier in counts for strikes against righties.

Lake Travis won the deciding game the next day and remains a threat to compete for a state title, despite the loss of ace Luke Jackson, because of pitchers like Gonzalez, Baker and Baylor signee Ethan Calder stepping up on the mound as well. Speaking of Calder, he was one of the few Lake Travis players to swing the bat well Friday night, smacking a hard single down the line. I’ve seen Lake Travis a lot recently, and he’s a consistent performer.

I’m saving the best for last, though. The best prospect and player on the field, on this specific night, was Johnson freshman Kayson Cunningham. Although he’s an infielder, Cunningham, who is committed to Texas Tech, showed his impressive baseball instincts and athleticism by taking to left field like a fish to water. He tracked the ball well in the outfield and made an excellent play to speedily range over to a hard liner, field it and fire a rocket into second base to hold a runner at first (note: Lake Travis head coach Mike Rogers vehemently argued there was interference after contact occurred near first base and it certainly looked like the umpires missed that one). Personally, I haven’t seen game reps for Cunningham in the infield and have only seen in-and-out, but he profiles as a middle-of-the-diamond player who could stick on the dirt.

Regardless, the bat is the ticket. He was the best hitter and hitting prospect on the field, which led to Lake Travis intentionally walking him late in the game with first base open. Stunned and angered by the move, Cunningham let the Lake Travis bench know it was intentionally walking a true freshman as he jogged to first base. It was my third look at Cunningham as a hitter and I remain convinced he has a future plus hit tool with a very advanced ability to put together quality at-bats, compete and track pitches. Speaking of plus, Cunningham also ran 3.98 seconds down the line to beat out a double play turn after he hit a hard grounder right at the second baseman.

We’re still a year away from the debut of the 2025 Five Tool 55, but Cunningham will undoubtedly be in the mix as the top prospect in the class. It’s extremely rare to see this type of hitter performing as a freshman against 6A competition. Although its season didn’t end like it hoped, Johnson will be poised for another deep run next season with the return of Cunningham, right-handed pitcher Mason Bixby, Krahn, and recent Texas State commit Ryne Farber, who showed his wheels and #want to beat out an infield single with a diving slide into first base.

Georgetown vs. Floresville

GEORGETOWN HIGH SCHOOL – The Georgetown battery of senior pitcher Jacob Hadden (Concordia signee) and Zachary Mazoch (Baylor signee) set the tone for the Eagles and sparked a 5-0 victory over Floresville to advance to the next round. Hadden commanded a 78-82 MPH fastball with late tailing action, threw his breaking ball for strikes, and used his changeup to get swings and misses. He tossed 6.2 shutout innings and gave up just two hits, issued no walks and punched out eight.

While some players were dragging after a long game at Floresville the night before, Mazoch was as energetic and fresh as the first practice of the season; and don’t think that doesn’t rub off on teammates. Serving as his team’s leadoff man, Mazoch broke a scoreless tie when he smacked a RBI double to the wall in right-center. With a good build, agility, and bounce to his step, Mazoch, a left-handed hitter, has a chance to stick behind the dish at the next level and impact a team offensively and defensively.

That hit rubbed off on the rest of the roster because soon the hits started falling in. In particular, junior shortstop Eli Hellman was especially intriguing with the bat. With some muscle present on an athletic frame that still has some projection, Hellman showed noticeable bat speed from the right side and pulled a RBI double down the third base line. He handled his defensive action at shortstop smoothly and confidently and looks like he has a real chance to stick there at the next level. I’ll be following him this summer and I imagine some D1 programs will, too.

Georgetown senior Wade Denton is going to UT Tyler to pitch, but after watching him track fly balls easily and naturally in center field, that coaching staff would be wise to insert him as a defensive replacement late in games. Also, don’t be surprised when senior Reece Bell goes to Arkansas Tech University and puts up impressive offensive numbers. The big right-handed hitter has added bat speed since the last time I’ve seen him and has a natural feel for hitting. He doesn’t give away at-bats and possesses a great blend of calm aggressiveness in the box.

On the Floresville side, UTSA signee Preston Freeman certainly passed the eye test and still has projection remaining. However, his timing was off in the batter’s box and it looked like the missed time with a shoulder injury was still lingering both offensively and defensively. That said, I’m betting on the talent and upside to come through at UTSA. Sophomore outfielder Jacob Villareal was Floresville’s best hitter by a wide margin, smacking a hard single in a left-on-left matchup and taking the best swings and at-bats of the day, which was surprising because he was hitting at the bottom of the order. Like Georgetown’s Denton, Villareal looked totally comfortable and athletic, easily tracking fly balls in center field and looked like he could be an impact defender at the position. With physical projection remaining, don’t be surprised if he emerges this summer and becomes Floresville’s best position player next season.

Random Thoughts from the Road

Shout out to Dripping Springs High School for having one of the best baseball fields I’ve been to. When the sun begins to set in the hill country, the outfield backdrop includes that uniquely Texan tone of orange as day turns to night. But my favorite part? The foul poles – actually, “fowl” poles – are sponsored by Chicken Express, a personal favorite because of the fried okra option and spicy serendipity seasoning.

Dustin McComas
Senior Editor
Five Tool Baseball

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