TROY — Getting to Brother Rice’s baseball field is no easy task.
It’s located in an industrial park next to a small airport and has very little on-site parking.
But the Howell baseball team made its biannual trek to the little stadium in search of finding out where, exactly, it stands in its development early in the 2016 season.
On a warm spring day, the Highlanders (2-2 overall) struggled, especially in the first game of a doubleheader sweep, losing to Birmingham Brother Rice 14-4 in five innings, then 7-6 on a one-out single in the bottom of the seventh.
“It’s a good measuring stick to see where you’re at,” Howell co-coach Jason Ladd said. “That’s why we play these kind of teams. It gives us an idea of where we are and where we’ve got to be.”
One thing the Howell pitchers learned, over and over again, was the importance of throwing strikes.
“They’re a good hitting team,” Ladd said. “They like the fastball, and you’ve got to mix in the off-speed, and we were having trouble with control problems with the off-speed.”
Brother Rice pounced right away, scoring seven runs in the first inning off starter Sam Weatherly, then seven more in the third off reliever Garrett Breault.
But the Highlanders got themselves going in the fifth, scoring three runs in a rally highlighted by Weatherly’s two-run double.
Asked if that gave his team a lift, Howell’s Brandon Leon said “I think it definitely did.”
Leon did his part in the second game.
Brother Rice got out to a 4-0 lead after three as starter Blake Arnold also struggled.
Arnold was lifted in the third after one batter for right-hander Bailey Burton, who Ladd said spent the morning in a doctor’s office.
But Burton turned out to be the cure for Howell’s pitching woes. In his first three innings, he allowed an unearned run while keeping Brother Rice hitters guessing,
“I was trying to keep them off-balance with the off-speed, and when I had the chance, I’d blow the fastball by them if I could,” he said. “The off speed was key.”
In the top of the fourth, the Howell bats got going.
The Highlanders had scored two runs thanks to a hit and two Warriors errors and had two men on base when starter Christian Faust was pulled in favor of Antonio Flores.
Leon, the next hitter, belted a 1-0 pitch for a three-run homer that gave the Highlanders a 5-4 lead.
“He gave me the pitch I was looking for, and I swung,” Leon said.
“That was huge,” Burton said. “That was a huge, huge hit. It gave us the lead and so much spirit to go back out there and keep grinding.”
Howell added a run in the fifth when Caleb Balgaard tripled and scored on Bryan Rendell’s sacrifice fly.
Brother Rice tied it in the sixth with two runs on four hits, then strung three consecutive hits in the bottom of the seventh to win it.
“They were coming back, but I wasn’t throwing strikes, which doesn’t help,” Burton said. “When I throw a ball on a 2-1 count to make it 3-1, they know a fastball is coming.”
On a warm, windy day that gave both outfielders and the planes taking off beyond the right field fence some nervous moments, the Highlanders were upbeat while packing for the ride home.
“The first game, we’ll forget about it,” Burton said. “But the second game was a game to remember. They just ended up winning.”
“We know where we are,” Leon said. “The first game was good for us. We know what we need to work on.”