With huge district title implications at stake against rival Byrd, Airline couldn’t have asked for anyone better to rely on than its seasoned ace.
UL Monroe signee Kyle Backofen delivered one of his best performances this season, holding the Yellow Jackets to just two hits in a convincing 9-1 win. The lefty struck out seven in five innings and saw Byrd (16-8, 6-2 District 1-5A) score an unearned run thanks to two errors in the third.
“Kyle looked really good tonight,” Vikings coach Toby Todd said. “He was sharp, threw a lot of strikes, got big outs.”
It was just the kind of outing Airline (19-4, 5-1) has come to expect from a pitcher who began his career closing games as a freshman and quickly grew comfortable in high-pressure situations. Backofen appeared to only get stronger, retiring the last seven batters he faced and striking out the first three hitters in the Yellow Jackets’ order to breeze through the fifth inning.
They still made things tough for Backofen, who couldn’t follow his mantra of a quick first inning. Steele Netterville fouled off several two-strike pitches before flying out to center, and Backofen credited Byrd’s hitters for making him work hard all night.
After 88 pitches, Todd turned to Hayden Waxley, knowing the Vikings will need Backofen to be at full strength later this season and into the playoffs. He also got to relax a bit more than usual thanks to a six-run second inning fueled by a costly two-out error before four consecutive hits.
“My fastball had trouble locating the first couple innings,” Backofen said. “But offspeeds were working good for me and by the end of the game I had everything working.”
When that happens, he’s nearly untouchable, but opponents have taken advantage of his mistakes at times this season. Backofen still hasn’t forgotten an 11-1 loss at Captain Shreve last month, and Todd said the senior keeps learning how to compete when he doesn’t have his best stuff.
It will certainly help if Airline’s offense can keep producing like it did against Byrd, scoring 14 runs in a two-game sweep to leapfrog the previously red-hot Yellow Jackets in the standings. Northwestern State commit Peyton Davis led the way with three hits and three RBIs in his first three at-bats, and second baseman Jonathan Brandon added three singles.
The remaining schedule looks favorable for the Vikings, considering they’ve already faced the top two teams behind them, Captain Shreve and Byrd, who will meet for a two-game series next week. But Backofen echoed the sentiments of his coach in noting Airline can’t afford to overlook any of its last three opponents if it wants to defend its District 1-5A title, not to mention earn a top seed for the playoffs.
“(As a coach) you push them every day and challenge them every day,” Todd said. “That was the postgame speech: Enjoy this all the way up until practice tomorrow and then it’s back to work because your next opponent’s just as important as this one.”