Before his at-bat, Clarence Mounties clean-up hitter Justin Taylor was talking with teammates.
By the third inning, Taylor and the Mounties had seen plenty of Howard starting pitcher Phil Holter — he kept his fastball and curveball low, low enough to kick up dirt behind home plate.
Taylor knew that in a crucial spot, he couldn’t afford to chase.
“I spoke up and said, ‘Hey, let’s make him throw a strike to us,’ ” Taylor recalled. “Then I get up there and swing at two of them.”
Right in the dirt.
But Taylor composed himself, and after working a full count, he laced what would prove to be the game-winning hit.
Taylor’s third-inning RBI single through the left side was all Clarence needed to beat Howard 1-0 on Thursday in Game 1 of the County League championship series.
Holter was the losing pitcher, and Clarence left-hander Justin Koleno earned the win. Koleno went six innings, allowing five hits, striking out one and walking three. Meanwhile, Holter also threw six innings, surrendering seven hits but striking out five.
For Clarence, a team accustomed to scoring 10 or more runs, Thursday was foreign territory. Not only did the Mounties score only one run, but they also stranded five runners in scoring position.
“That’s just not something we’ve done this year,” Clarence coach Rob Gavlock said. “But the one run held up.”
It did, thanks to some stellar defense.
Taylor’s liner past the third baseman was Clarence’s offensive highlight, but the play Gavlock remembered was in the field.
Still clinging to a one-run lead, the Mounties found themselves in trouble in the top of the sixth inning. Koleno retired the leadoff hitter but walked the next two, and the Hawks had runners on first and second with one out.
Next up, Brandon Gettig jolted a line drive into right field. Gage Gardner advanced from second and rounded third heading for the plate.
Clarence right-fielder Chuck Probst gathered the ball and let loose for home, one-hopping his throw into the mitt of catcher Brian Kochik.
Kochik applied the tag on Gardner, who was called out.
It was something you’d see on Baseball Tonight’s “Web Gems.”
“That was just awesome,” Gavlock said. “Oh my god, he couldn’t have (thrown it better).”
On the other end, Howard assistant coach Jim Gardner acknowledged Probst’s laser.
“It had to be a perfect throw,” the Hawks’ third-base coach said. “Absolutely had to (send him), but it was just an absolutely perfect throw.”
Koleno next induced a flyout to end the threat.
The Clarence southpaw started the final frame, but was pulled after the first batter, Tyler Womer, singled into right field.
Taylor came on in relief.
Dan Cole sacrifice bunted Womer over to second, Clay Smith walked on four pitches, and Dylan Womer grounded into a fielder’s choice, leaving runners on first and third with two outs.
Taylor polished off Ryan Dyke, though, powering a couple fastballs by the final batter for a game-ending strikeout.
“With Justin coming in to close it out, it was a laser show with just fastball after fastball,” Gavlock said. “It’s nice to have someone who can come in and throw heat like that.”
The Mounties were upbeat after the win, despite not lighting up the scoreboard, and the Hawks were also positive.
“We felt that we’ll be in a good series with them, and we showed that today,” Gardner said.
They’ll have another chance to show that on Sunday, as Clarence visits Howard for Game 2 of the championship series.