Baseball: Hilty has been Richland High's backbone

April 25, 2013 

The moment is forever etched in Mason Hilty’s mind.

He was a freshman back in 2010, a late-season call-up to Richland’s varsity club along with Nate Ruane and Colton Shelby. Fresh off a dominating season on the unbeaten frosh team, Hilty was called on occasionally to courtesy run for a pitcher or catcher, but mostly was cutting his teeth learning from experienced upperclassmen — including his brother, Hayden — making a run to the Class 4A state championship game.

It was in that title game on a rainy, late-May weekend in Seattle that Hilty got the call to take the mound, a little mop-up duty in an 8-0 loss to Kentwood for his first varsity appearance in a Bomber uniform.

In the championship game. At Safeco Field.

On the same rubber and dirt toed by the likes of Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee.

As a freshman?

“It was a little nerve-wracking,” Hilty said this week, three years removed from Safeco. “My first pitch I threw up in the screen. My brother talked to me and calmed me down.”

“He came out, and he had the ‘deer in the headlights’ look,” recalled Hayden, who as an older brother by three years takes credit for Mason’s toughness. “I said, ‘Look at the scoreboard (6-0 at the time).’ I said, ‘Go have fun. Who cares? Go throw strikes and have fun.’ ”

Mason finished out the game, gave up a couple runs in his two innings — “Thank goodness I wasn’t playing here,” he added, motioning to Bomber Field. “I would have given up a few homers.”

But it served as the introduction of the next big-moment Bomber. And big moments are something from which Hilty never has shied away.

“At that point, I had visions of a kid who would be really great, who would really be the backbone of this program the next three years,” said Ben Jacobs, who stepped down as coach last summer after 24 years and four state titles.

Jacobs’ prescience proved dead on, and Hilty proved to be a strong foundation from which to build a contending team. He and his Richland teammates will finish out the regular season with a pair of games at Chiawana, the top seed to next week’s district tournament and a berth into regionals already in their back pocket. The Bombers are bidding for a seventh consecutive trip to the state semifinals, a streak that long has been a state record for 3A and 4A schools.

Hilty has been the No. 1 starter for the Bombers the last two years and was as good as during his sophomore year. He is almost as big a threat at the plate or at shortstop, and the big moments have been many.

There was another May day in 2011 as a sophomore when Hilty threw two-plus innings of relief in a first-round state game to get the win, then turned in a complete-game six-hitter in the quarterfinals.

He was 3-0 with a save and a 1.44 ERA in the postseason last year leading up to the state semifinals, and he added a three-run walk-off home run in the regionals against Mead for good measure.

And then there are the two starts in state semifinals as a sophomore and junior, when Jacobs couldn’t imagine handing the ball to anyone else.

The first was a 6-0 loss to Bothell when ace Brian McAfee — now an All-Ivey League pitcher at Cornell — threw a marvelous two-hitter. The second we as a 1-0 loss to Puyallup, where Hilty and Vikings starter Matt Becker both threw four-hitters.

Both were top-notch outings for Hilty, particularly last year. But he doesn’t look at it that way.

“I’m 0-2,” he said.

That right there is another trait of Hilty. Along with his big-game toughness, he also puts team losses on his shoulders.

“He’s one of those guys, and I’ve noticed it this season some, he takes the blame for a lot of stuff,” said Shelby, a longtime friend and teammate. “He’s a little hard on himself. It goes back to his competitive edge. He wants to win, to do his best. And even if it’s not his fault — if he pitches a lights-out game — he feels somewhere along the road he did something wrong. But honestly, I don’t think it affects his play.”

That mental toughness is something Hilty’s current coach and another former Bombers star, Grant Richardson, has seen from both sides.

“I’m glad he’s on my side this year,” said Richardson, an assistant coach at Kamiakin for two years before coming back home this season. “He is definitely a force to be reckoned with. You do not want him up with the game on the line if you’re the other team. Now that I’m coaching him, he’s exactly the guy you want up at the plate or on the mound when things get interesting.”

Hilty is having his finest offensive season yet, hitting .444 with nine extra-base hits in 45 at-bats, 21 RBIs and 16 runs scored. On the mound, he is 3-1 with a 3.06 ERA, 13 walks and 44 strikeouts in 34 1/3 innings pitched.

He may have allowed a few more runs this year (15 compared to 14 for all last year, including the postseason). But the fastball still has the same pop, the slider the same bite. And he still has the same bulldog attitude that, after twisting his ankle playing summer basketball in 2011, allowed him to pitch a shutout the next day before spending the second game in the dugout on crutches during an American Legion doubleheader.

“I can’t leave the game,” he said.

When Hilty leaves Richland, it will be to play ball for the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls. And he will take with him some great memories.

“Playing with all my buddies. Playing with my brother his last year and my first year,” he said. “I remember all the great baseball players who played here.”

Then he motioned out to left field, and the four state championship banners hanging on the fence from 1999, 2005, 2007 and 2009.

“I just hope to get one banner up there for 2013.”

It’s about the only big moment left in an overflowing high school career.

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