Topeka In the week leading up to Friday's state baseball showdown between eighth-seeded Lawrence High and top-seeded Free State, speculation ran wild about who the Firebirds would start on the mound.
As it turned out, the only starter that mattered Friday was LHS senior Tom Schuh.
Schuh tossed a gem with the season on the line, limiting the powerful Free State lineup to five hits and one run through six innings while waiting for the Lions' offense to catch up with his subtle brilliance.
It eventually did, as LHS broke through with two runs in the sixth and another in the seventh to claim a 4-3, round-one victory.
"We all expected this to happen," said Schuh, downplaying his effort on the mound. "We expected to come in here and win. I just tried to keep the ball down and mix it up. It's nothing that's too unheard of. The main thing was just to try and keep the ball down and I did a pretty good job of that today."
Pretty good doesn't begin to describe it.
When Free State's first two batters of the game reached base and Schuh later found himself staring at a bases-loaded, one-out scenario, the LHS southpaw coolly retired Free State's E.J. Swanson with a strikeout and Cody Kukuk on a grounder to third to get out of the inning. From there, Schuh found cruise control for the next five innings. He worked fast, was aggressive and threw with confidence.
After the final out of each inning, Schuh raced off the mound like an Olympic sprinter in the 100-meter dash. Get the ball, go to work and get off the field. That's how Schuh operates. Friday, it worked masterfully.
"If you have an ump who lets you work fast, you're set," LHS coach Brad Stoll said. "And luckily they let Tommy work fast today. He has so much confidence, and he knows the coaching staff and our kids have faith in him. Today, he showed why."
Schuh's outing did not overshadow that of Free State starter Caleb Gress. The Firebirds' lefty matched Schuh through five innings, allowed just one run on four hits and struck out eight. But in the sixth, Gress' roll slowed and the Lions took advantage while the Firebirds left a pile of innings from their deep and talented staff in the bullpen.
"He'd been so dominant that we thought we'd give him a couple more (batters)," FSHS coach Mike Hill said of Gress. "The issue is not what we did on the mound or defensively. The issue is we didn't get it done offensively."
Like Gress, Schuh also eventually found trouble. After cruising through six innings, the LHS starter threw in some drama in the seventh. After retiring two of the first three batters, Schuh loaded the bases and gave up an RBI single to Free State senior John Wilson.
"I decided before the ball hit the grass that we were going with (LHS closer) Joe (Kornbrust)," Stoll said.
It never came to that.
A base-running blunder ended the game and gave Schuh the complete-game victory. His final line: seven innings, seven hits, one earned run, two walks and six strikeouts.
The bottom line? Schuh was the best pitcher in the park on Friday and his team is moving on.