Home run derby
GAINESVILLE — The Tigers didn’t hit a single home run in 2015.
They hadn’t even hit more than one in a game this season.
But in Tuesday’s District 3-7A semifinal, the Knights could barely keep them in the ballpark.
Columbia hit six home runs — three by Tyler Myrick, two more by Jordan Culp and another by Kaleb Thomas — to defeat Vanguard 9-2 in the district semifinals at Gainesville High.
“They came up big today. They’re seniors. They don’t want this to end,” Columbia head coach Heath Phillips said.
The victory not only sends the Tigers to Thursday’s district final but it also punched their ticket to the Class 7A playoffs for the second straight year.
They’ll go for a second straight district championship on Thursday night against Middleburg, which upset Gainesville 7-6 in the other district semifinal Tuesday night.
“We accomplished one of our goals, and that was getting to the state playoffs,” Phillips said. “Now our next goal is a district championship.”
The Tigers defeated the Knights 3-2 in both regular season meetings but Tuesday was the second time Columbia faced Vanguard starting pitcher Kyler Adams. The experience from the lineup’s first meeting against Adams proved immeasurable and led to the blowout win.
“We knew what we were going to see. We were prepared,” said Myrick, who went 3-for-4 with a team-high five RBI. “We were trying to lift the ball too much when we faced him last time. This time we just tried to stay middle and stay on top, and we hit home runs.”
Thomas was the first to go yard, sending Adams to one of the deepest parts of the stadium in centerfield for a 1-0 lead in the first.
“I knew to stay back and wait for him to miss,” said Thomas, who went 3-for-4 with two additional singles.
Adams then walked Culp before Myrick went deep two batters later for the first home run of his high school career on a ball that just hit the top of the left field wall. It was originally ruled a double before the umpires took a minute to discuss the call, eventually telling Myrick to round the bases to give Columbia (15-11) a 3-0 lead.
Vanguard (11-14) made the game interesting for a little bit in the top of the fourth when it scored two unearned runs off Columbia starting pitcher Harrison Shubert to cut the Tigers’ lead to 3-2. But the Knights constantly left runners on base — they had at least one runner reach base in each of the first five innings before Shubert settled into a groove, retiring the last seven hitters he faced in a complete-game performance that included seven strikeouts.
“I started off shaky. I didn’t have my best stuff,” said Shubert, who gave up four hits and walked two. “I had to go to my B-minus, C-plus stuff, but I made it work.”
The Tigers’ lineup gave Shubert plenty of breathing room in the fifth when they hit two more home runs. Culp first hit a solo shot for his first homer — a liner that just sailed over the right field wall — before Myrick hit a two-run dinger to extend Columbia’s lead to 6-2.
Adams’ day on the mound was over soon after. Columbia hammered the junior for six runs on nine hits.
“He threw soft, so we knew to stay away,” said Culp, who also went 2-for-2 with two walks.
Columbia scored three more runs in the sixth off reliever Tommy Knowd, the first coming via Culp’s bat again. The senior sent another pitch over the wall for two more runs after Thomas previously reached on a single.
With Myrick and Culp tied for home runs on the day, Myrick made sure to take the derby crown two batters later when he hit his third of the afternoon to put Columbia up 9-2.
As for who hit the “best” home run of the day, well, that’s still up for debate.
“I had the furthest, technically,” Thomas said.
“I was down 0-2, I don’t know, man,” Culp said.
“I also had two strikes on mine on my last one,” Myrick rebutted.
“First pitch of the at-bat to the deepest part of the field,” Thomas continued despite the interruption.
“Who had more?” Myrick said.
They all laughed then.
One thing they all can agree on? Their next goal — a district title.
“This group right here stays loose. They enjoy playing with each other,” Phillips said. “If we go out and take care of business like this, then we’re going to be tough.”