Landers rises to the occasion for Warren Central

Published 3:55 am Sunday, April 16, 2023

It was no secret, even to himself, that there were some questions about how Kylan Landers would handle the spotlight of Warren Central’s biggest baseball game of the season.

Landers hadn’t started a game as a pitcher in more than a year. When he got on the mound this season, control was an issue. Even for a senior and a three-year starter, pitching against the defending state champion with a region title on the line was a new and challenging experience.

Landers, though, answered all of those questions and more. He allowed one run in six innings, did not walk a batter, and rose to the occasion in leading the Vikings to a 2-1 victory over Northwest Rankin on Wednesday that clinched the Region 6-6A championship.

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“It’s by far the best game I’ve had,” Landers said. “Coming up for this game I’ve thrown a few bullpens and was feeling great. I finally got the chance to start. They gave me that chance and I decided I’ve got to bow up, throw strikes, let the defense work and you’ll win ballgames like that.”

Warren Central has a deep rotation of seven pitchers, but it took a big hit recently when ace Brooks Willoughby went down with an arm injury.

Willoughby has a 1.19 ERA and 49 strikeouts in six starts this season. It’s hoped he’ll return for the playoffs, but until then the Vikings desperately needed one of the others to take their game up a notch.

Landers seemed an unlikely candidate. Tuesday’s game was his 29th career pitching appearance, but only his second start. The other was on March 14, 2022, when he gave up four runs in 4 1/3 innings in a 9-1 loss to Madison Central.

In eight relief appearances covering 9 2/3 innings this season, Landers had hit and walked nearly as many batters (15) as he’d struck out (16).

As one of the team’s senior leaders, however, he rose to the occasion in fine fashion.

Landers worked into and out of several jams, threw a runner out at the plate on a squeeze bunt in the second inning, and retired seven of the last eight batters he faced.

He got some help from his defense as well. Second baseman Maddox Lynch dove to snag a line drive and steal a hit in the second inning, and center fielder Ismael Trujillo ran down a ball in the gap for the final out of the sixth. Both plays saved runs and kept the game close. Warren Central scored both of its runs in the bottom of the seventh inning.

“We had to put (Landers) in the starting role with Willoughby on the shelf right now,” WC coach Randy Broome said. “That’s his first start of the year and he had six really strong innings. His pitch count got up a little bit more than I wanted it to, but he kept coming in there saying he felt good.”

Landers also played a key role on offense. He reached base four times — two singles and two walks — and made a game-saving baserunning play in the seventh inning.

With one out, the bases loaded and Northwest Rankin leading 1-0, Seth Sterling hit a bouncing grounder up the middle. It was a potential game-ending double play ball, but Northwest second baseman Chase Peeples fielded it in a spot where his only play was to try and make a tag as Landers ran from first to second.

Landers avoided it and was safe at second base as Ryan Nelson scored the tying run. The next pitch was a passed ball that Blake Channell scored the winning run on to give Warren Central its first region title since 2016.

“We haven’t won in a while. District champs is a big thing. It’s our senior year and we’ve got a chance to do it. I’m proud of all of us,” Landers said. “Especially after (Northwest Rankin) swept us last year, it was our turn to take over.”

Although he was a major factor in all phases of the game, it was Landers’ pitching that earned him the game ball from Warren Central’s coaches. It was also a performance that buoyed their hopes of making a deep run in the postseason.

Warren Central (15-7, 7-1 Region 6-6A) earned a first-round bye with its region title. That will give Willoughby an extra week to heal and hopefully return in time for the Vikings’ second-round series that begins May 2.

“It gives us a week off. Sometimes in baseball that’s not a good thing. You don’t want to sit back. But our No. 1 (pitcher) is on the shelf and that gives him another week to get better,” Broome said. “It starts setting up some things. If we can get Willoughby back on the bump, who knows what’s in front of us? District champs is awesome, but more importantly it gives us a chance to get Willoughby back on the mound.”

It also gives the Vikings the confidence that they have another arm they can rely on in a big spot.

“If I can keep that up, and the whole team can keep that up, we’ll make a deep run,” Landers said. “And with Brooks coming back later, we’ll be even better.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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