HOWELL — For the Howell baseball team, it was an uncomfortable case of deja vu in Wednesday’s loss to Lakeland in the KLAA opener for both teams.
It was a lot closer this year, with Lakeland winning 4-3, but the Highlanders were content to consider how the rest of the season went. Howell went unbeaten in the Lakes Conference the rest of the way, winning 16 in a row, including the conference final at Lakeland.
“It’s huge, and it’s huge against (Howell),” Lakeland coach Todd Miller said of the win, “because they’re going to beat up some teams in our league. Getting this win really helps.”
Howell lefthander Sam Weatherly made his season debut before more than a dozen major-league scouts, radar guns at the ready behind the backstop.
But Lakeland righthander Grant Smith was up to the task, getting out of a bases-loaded jam in the second inning and holding the Highlanders at bay until he left with two outs in the seventh.
“He mixes it up,” Weatherly said of facing Smith. “He’s really good at pitching backwards. You expect something and he throws something else. He kept us on our toes and off balance.”
Smith gave up seven hits, walked two and struck out seven. Weatherly was almost as sharp, going six innings, allowing three hits and two runs, both aided by Howell errors.
Lakeland made it 4-0 in the seventh after scoring twice with two out. Pinch-hitter Jack Dungan struck out but reached first on a passed ball, Hunter Roberts re-entered the game and went to second on a wild pitch, and scored on a single by Spencer Shorling.
Shorling went to second on an error, stole third and scored on a wild pitch by Howell reliever Evan Maize.
Howell did all its scoring with two outs in the seventh as well. Caleb Balgaard singled and Kaden Palmer walked with one out. After Anthony Sells replaced Palmer as a courtesy runner, both moved up on Luke Russo’s bounceout t0 Smith.
Smith left at that point in favor of third baseman Brett Lingenfelter, who gave up hits to Nick Rausch, Garrett Breault and Logan Russo, all of which drove in runs.
“It was nice getting (Smith) out and seeing te new arm,” Palmer said. “We’re always on top of new arms and fresh arms coming in.”
But that was as far as the Highlanders would get. Lingenfelter got Brandon Leon to fly out for the game’s final out.
Weatherly struggled with a blister in his final inning, but made no excuses.
“It happens,” he said. “You gotta get over it. You gotta battle things.”
Howell co-coach Jason Ladd said he was mostly pleased with his team’s performance.
“We had a mental error that cost us a runm, but we were happy with the way we played,” he said. “Lakeland’s a good ball club. We ave to battle back and take care of business one game at a time.”