— By CLINT FOSTER
With the score tied at four and one out in the bottom of the seventh inning, Tuesday night at Pratt Field, sophomore McCain Mason stepped up to bat with the bases loaded.
The talented, young utility player had only registered one hit in his previous eight at bats, but with the game against the pesky Castleberry Lions on the line on senior night, head coach Bret Barrick and the rest of the Mineral Wells Rams needed Mason to come through with a bunt to bring the speedy Braxton Allen home from third base and win the game.
The Rams had already learned in the middle of the fourth inning that Springtown had defeated Kennedale, thus securing the District 6-3A championship for Mineral Wells regardless of a win or loss – the Rams held the tie-breaker over second-place Kennedale thanks to a season sweep.
But these Rams wanted nothing short of an outright district championship and it was clear, after a five-inning pitching battle and sudden scoring surge, it would take some late-game heroics to do it.
Mason squared around for a bunt once ... strike one. He tried a second time ... strike two.
Now behind in the count, Barrick told Mason to just choke up on the bat and put the ball in play.
The sophomore delivered, hitting a towering sacrifice fly into right field that allowed Allen to tag up and slide into home for the walkoff run.
"I'm feeling extremely humbled," Mason said after the win. "I'd never choked up on a bat before. I was like, 'I've got to do the job. It's time to quit being selfish.' God blessed me with that RBI. I just choked up on the bat and it happened my way. It was a great experience."
For the third time in four years, the Mineral Wells Rams (17-10, 8-2) were district champions, earning a 5-4 victory over Castleberry in thrilling fashion. The entire dugout poured onto the field and formed a celebratory scrum around Allen, jumping up and down with their index fingers held high.
"You couldn't ask for anything more," Barrick said after being doused with a cooler full of ice water. "These kids don't have any quit. There were all kinds of times in that game when we could have just said, 'You know what, it's just not our night.' But we just kept fighting and plugging.
"They wanted the outright district championship and they just got it. It's kind of becoming a habit around Mineral Wells and I like that. Our kids expect it. If it was easy, it wouldn't mean anything and it hasn't been easy. We've had to fight for it. It sure is sweet."
As the Rams have had to do so often this season, they had to battle for everything they got in their win against Castleberry.
Chris Rapp, Cameron Bullock and Justyn Lee combined for a solid, yet hard-earned, pitching outing in which Lee got credit for the win, tossing the final 1 2/3 innings of the game.
The trio, who admittedly did not have their best stuff working, combined for seven strikeouts, eight walks, two earned runs and four hits and – most importantly – kept their team in the game from start to finish.
For Lee, earning the win in one of his few mound appearances on senior night with the district championship on the line was particularly special.
"I'm just extremely happy," he said. "I'm glad the coaches trusted me to put me out there and I did the work. I knew I could go up there and throw strikes. That's all I had to do. My fastball was definitely going in there."
The Rams’ offense was stymied for much of the game, only earning two hits through the first five frames before their bats caught fire.
Both of those hits came senior Paden Patino, who broke out of his hitting slump in a big way to carry his team. He finished a perfect 4-for-4, including a clutch two-RBI double to put the Rams on the board and tie the score at 2-2 in the sixth inning.
"I haven't been hitting well lately," he said. "I just went out there and did my thing and kept getting hits. This is the greatest feeling ever to be a senior and win a district championship. Just to know you were a part of this team, it's amazing."
The Rams would finish with nine hits, thanks largely to their four-hit rally in the seventh that set up the walkoff win.
Senior shortstop Colby Kissinger credited the announcement of Kennedale's loss as a big reason why the Rams were able to relax and get the offense going.
"That just lifted a burden off of our shoulders," he said of Barrick's fourth-inning announcement. "We had so much pressure on us and right when he said that, it was gone. We just decided we were going to be district champions the way we should and, next thing you know, we surpassed Kennedale's record and got first place. We knew our bats were there, we just had to find it."
As big of an exclamation point as the Castleberry win was on the Rams' district championship season, it is nothing close to the end. With the playoffs right around the corner, to quote Mason, "The road has just begun."
Mineral Wells will meet Vernon in Bowie for a single game, Thursday, May 1, to open the first round of the Class 3A, Region 1 and 3 playoffs.
"We don't need to take them lightly," Mason said of the fourth-place team in District 5-3A. "We just need to keep our heads on straight and play our game. There's not many people that can beat us if we play our game and keep on the same road we're on right now."
"All I know is we're going to go over there and kick their butts," Patino said. "One game or two games, it doesn't matter. We're going to do what we do and that's win."
One thing's for sure, if the Rams bottle this magic they've found and play like they're capable, they will be doing a lot more winning before the book is closed on their 2014 campaign.