by Matt Antonic
RICHARDSON, TX -- Frisco Riders pitcher Oliver Bullard stared down his Texas Generals counterpart in the batter’s box on the two-strike count and came set. With the bases loaded, two out and his team leading by three in the bottom of the fifth inning Saturday, the game tension was palpable. Bullard wasn’t fazed.
The Riders’ righthander unleashed perhaps his best pitch of the day that caught the edge of the strike zone. An emphatic strike-three call by the umpire only added to the jubilation as his teammates and coaches met him with fist bumps and high fives.
The Riders capped off a strong performance Saturday in 12uD2 action in the Triple Crown Texas Season Opener at Huffhines Park, winning their first game against NTXBC Dirtbags and snuffing out the General’s comeback attempts in a 5-2 victory.
“That was huge,” Riders coach Scott Armstrong said of his righthander’s performance and the win against the Generals. “Getting them to play like this is phenomenal. Everybody is seeing the baseball well.”
The Riders were thrilled by the fast start, going up 3-0 in the top of the second inning off timely plays that ultimately won them the game. Owen James of the Riders thought the bats came through when they needed to. “Our hitting was definitely a lot better in this game,” he said.
Standing next to James was Bullard, covered in sweat after his work on the mound and having just completed a round of high fives with his teammates. “He was really hitting the strike zone well,” James said.
Bullard’s strikeout with the bases loaded in the bottom of the fifth would certainly qualify as the play of the day to James and Armstrong, but he was only too happy to spread the credit around to his whole team. Asked what his favorite pitch to throw during games is, Bullard replied immediately: “Two seam fastball, for sure.”
If the Rider’s improvement of the course of the game was any indication, they are set up well for a chance stand alone Sunday afternoon in the championship bracket. The Generals scored two runs on pitches that skipped to the backstop but were unable to generate any more offense against the Riders and their stout defense on the infield.
The 3-0 lead had been trimmed to 3-2 thanks to solid baserunning by the Generals. Both times the ball skipped by to the backstop resulted in bang-bang plays at home, but the runners beat the throw both times.
The Riders responded by manufacturing two runs in the fourth inning, both on force outs at first, pushing the lead back to a more comfortable 5-2. The hitting that both Armstrong and James praised had come through once again by simply putting the ball in play with men on base.
It wasn’t surprising to the coaches, who have stressed defensive fundamentals and mastering the speed of the game in practices with the team. “It is important for these guys to learn how to battle at this stage and really settle into the speed of the game and the communication that has to come with it,” Armstrong added.
“Here we go Riders, here we go,” rang from the dugout several times while the Riders were at bat. The energy was matched by the parents rooting on from the stands and the walk-up music that accompanied each Rider up to bat.
Bullard and James both agreed that the team is excited for what they can do on Sunday and are confident in their chances.
Armstrong concurred. “We’re going all the way, baby,” he said.
And what do Bullard, James and their teammates want most out of Sunday? “To win,” Bullard said. “We want the ring.”
Ten teams will make the cut for the championship bracket -- the semifinals at Huffhines are schedule for 2 p.m., with the title game slated for 4 p.m.