ARGYLE — Ryley Balch may not have been looking for redemption Thursday against Texarkana Pleasant Grove, but he found it.
In Game 1 of the best-of-three Class 3A regional semifinal playoff series, two things that typically aren’t charged to the Argyle junior catcher — a passed ball and an error — happened on the same play in the fourth inning.
With the Eagles leading by two runs in the seventh, he threw out a runner trying to steal third base and helped Argyle wrap up the Game 1 win. Two days later, he sparked the rally that pushed the Eagles into this weekend’s Region II finals against Paris North Lamar.
In his first year at Argyle and his first in Texas, Balch is a big reason why the Eagles are one round away from their first state baseball tournament appearance.
“He’s a big-time competitor,” Argyle coach Ricky Griffin said. “He keeps the team loose. He’s kind of a comical kid, but when the game is going on, he expects everybody to give the same effort and the same intensity that he gives. He’s kind of become our leader in that.”
The Vancouver, Wash., native moved to Texas from Arizona last summer and spent the first couple of months of his junior year in Prosper before his family moved to Argyle.
After competing for the starting catcher job at Prosper, he settled in behind the plate at Argyle and into the cleanup spot in the batting order. He’s thrived at both.
Argyle’s No. 4 hitter has been the catalyst for the Eagles throughout their postseason run. In nine playoff games, Balch is batting a team-high .423. The junior also leads the Eagles on the season with his .402 batting average, the lone Eagle over the .400 mark.
In Game 3 against Pleasant Grove, the switch-hitting Balch stepped up to the plate to lead off the seventh inning. Argyle needed at least a run to avoid its third playoff exit to Pleasant Grove.
School history didn’t stymie the bat of the Argyle newcomer. He lined a single and the Eagles went on to score two runs in the top of the seventh to pull off a 2-1 win over the Hawks and advance to the regional finals for the third time.
“In the seventh inning, he comes to the plate and hits a screamer to left-center, which doesn’t surprise me,” Griffin said. “I felt really good right where we were in the lineup with him leading off. It’s kind of where you want to be.”
In the week leading up to the series, Griffin didn’t know if his leading hitter and starting catcher was going to be available. In the regional quarterfinals against Sanger, Balch suffered a possible chest cartilage injury in Game 2.
Griffin talked about having the 6-2, 195-pound junior be the designated hitter in Game 3 against Sanger, and Balch quickly dismissed that idea. But before the Eagles played Pleasant Grove and before a scan showed that Balch merely suffered a bruise, he was unsure of his place in the lineup and didn’t like that.
“It was killing me,” Balch said. “Even me and my dad were getting frustrated at each other about it. He wanted what was best for me — to try to take time off and get healed — but for me I wanted to be out there and play.”
He was behind the plate for Game 1 against Pleasant Grove, when the atypical occurred. Balch’s passed ball and throwing error in a span of seconds occurred and then were forgotten about because of the key out he picked up in the seventh.
“He prides himself on not letting the ball get past him or away from him,” Griffin said. “It did, and he saw the kid going, and he just rushed the throw. He was upset. I didn’t even go talk to him after he threw it away because I knew he was upset. But I also wanted him to get another chance because I knew something like that could happen.”
Balch was behind the plate for senior Drew Gooch’s Game 1 save and Game 3 victory. The TCU-bound pitcher said it’s comforting having Balch on the other end of his pitches.
“I know that I can bury a curveball or a changeup in the dirt knowing that he’ll block it,” Gooch said. “It’s good to have that trust.”
Sometimes, the ball will squirt away from Balch and sometimes things won’t go the way he wants them to, and the fourth inning of Game 1 against Pleasant Grove happens. But most of the time, Balch shows why it’s good to have him near home, whether he’s batting on either side of the plate or squatting behind it.
“Every inning when someone’s on,” Balch said, “I’m honestly hoping that they’re running, because I always want an opportunity to throw someone out. That’s kind of the only action you get. It’s fun trying to throw guys out.
“But having that opportunity in the seventh to get that guy in that situation, that was huge and that was pretty sweet.”
BEN BABY can be reached at 940-566-6869 and via Twitter at @Ben_Baby.