HUGHESVILLE - For the first time this season, Justin Lambert took the mound with no limitations. The junior, who fractured his elbow during football season, has been on a gradually increasing pitch count throughout the season. But during Tuesday's first-round District 4 Class AA playoff game against Athens the shackles were off.
Lambert didn't need to look over his shoulder when he reached 25, 35, 50, 75 or even 90 pitches.
His head coach Casey Waller did come out for a brief conference in the seventh inning but U-turned to the Hughesville dugout without removing Lambert, although that previously worrisome pitch count was growing into the 90s. Lambert made sure Waller didn't return and finished a 1-0 Hughesville victory over the 10th-seeded Wildcats.
Justin Lambert, right, talks with teammates Tyler Mitcheltree, center, and Brent Steele, left. View additional photos at cu.sungazette.com.
"I just went pitch-by-pitch and batter-by-batter," said Lambert. "I felt good and in the first inning I was hitting my spots, so I knew I was on and all I needed to do was keep my composure."
A composed Lambert set up a date at No. 2 seed South Williamsport for the No. 7 seed Spartans (14-7) on Friday in the district quarterfinals.
Lambert allowed just two hits and drove in the game-winning run way back in the first inning with a ground-rule double that left the Spartans with another two days of practice instead of a meeting to return uniforms.
Hughesville's offense couldn't deliver any cushion for its right-hander pitcher, as he was forced to be nearly perfect for seven innings. Lambert walked a batter in the first inning and hit another in the second, but pitched 5 1/3 no-hit innings before surrendering a Zane Vargason double that put runners on second and third with one out in the sixth. The middle of the Athens (11-8) order, however, couldn't come up with a game-tying hit and Lambert stood just three outs away from a complete-game shutout.
Lambert led off the bottom of the sixth inning with a single and reached second on a wild pitch in hopes of gaining that important insurance run, but he never moved from second base and he was left to return to the mound like he did in the second through sixth innings - with a one-run lead.
The top of the seventh began with Lambert's 12th strikeout, but Mike Estes put the tying run on base after he singled. After several throws to first base, Estes finally received an opportunity to run but Reitz rose from his crouch and fired a missile to second base that retired Estes and left Lambert one out away from the shutout.
"I was watching Brett and after the fourth inning he kept getting stronger and stronger with his throws (to second), and he put that one right on the money," Waller said.
"That gave me a huge lift," Lambert said. "That was a huge confidence booster and I knew after that we weren't going to lose."
Pinch-hitter Nick Vosburgh flew out to right after Estes was caught stealing and Lambert and his teammates could finally exhale.
"Every pitch was important. Every inning was important," Waller said. "Today was Justin's day."
Lambert's dominance was never more telling than in the middle innings. He retired 12 consecutive hitters at one point, including nine by strikeout. Eight of those strikeouts came in a row, including striking out the side in the fourth and fifth innings.
"(Justin) is a fantastic pitcher and he was on today," Reitz said. "When he's on, he's almost unhittable."
The junior showed great command during his 95-pitch outing. He and Reitz worked the outer half of the plate - and then some at times - against Athens' hitters and worked ahead in the count consistently. He showed playoff poise in the one inning he faced trouble and gave the Spartans momentum heading into Friday's quarterfinal.
Tyler Forbes nearly matched Lambert with the help of his outfield that made four diving plays to take Hughesville hits away. Forbes allowed just three hits and an unlucky unearned run in the first.
Tyler Mitcheltree led of the bottom of the first for Hughesville with a laser to third base that went in and out of the third baseman's glove. He calmly recovered and threw to first, but the first baseman didn't maintain contact with the bag according to the umpire and Mitcheltree was ruled safe, despite an argument.
Mitcheltree was sacrificed to second and after a strikeout, Lambert hit a ground-rule double just to the right of the taller fence in left-center field.
"We showed we are resilient tonight," Waller said. "We kept battling and if we score three to four runs our pitching will keep us in most games."
Tuesday one was enough.
Athens000 000 0 - 0 2 1
Hughesville100 000 0 - 1 3 1
Tyler Forbes and Jake Shaffer. Justin Lambert and Brett Reitz. W - Lambert. L - Forbes.
Top Athens hitters: Zane Vargason 2B. Top Hughesville hitters: Lambert 2-3, 2B, RBI.
Records: Hughesville 14-7, Athens 11-8. Next: Hughesville at South Williamsport, Friday.