Ding! Ding! Ding!
Never mind that Columbia hit six home runs in Tuesday’s district semifinal against Vanguard.
Yes, those were a surprise, but the nine hits weren’t.
The Tigers (15-11) are batting a scorching .342 since their 11-2 win over Gainesville on March 11, a stretch of 15 games that’s included 10 wins.
It’s been a big change from a season ago when the Tigers were too reliant on their pitching staff too often, hitting just .245 for the year.
That ultimately cost them in the postseason, when they lost to Oakleaf 7-1 in the regional semifinals.
Columbia doesn’t plan on that happening again.
“Our bats are getting hot when it counts, and that’s big for a team,” Columbia left fielder Kaleb Thomas said. “We didn’t hit too well last year, and we’ve really picked it up late in the season this year, and that’s just big for our pitchers too because they can pitch with confidence that their defense is going to hold up and they’re going to have offense that scores.”
Thomas nails it right on the head.
Columbia’s pitching staff lowered its team ERA to 2.34 thanks to the 15-game stretch, and the run support has relaxed the pitching staff and provided a comfort zone.
They no longer have to be perfect.
“It’s a big relief because it gives us a little bit more breathing room to just throw strikes and not have to worry about making the perfect pitch every time,” said Tyler Myrick, who will start tonight’s district final.
Harrison Shubert can certainly attest to that.
The senior didn’t get rattled on the mound during Tuesday’s district semifinal even when Vanguard cut Columbia’s lead to 3-2 with two unearned runs. He knew his lineup would produce more runs.
And they did. Six more, all courtesy of home runs.
“It builds our confidence,” Shubert said. “With the team hitting, we know we’re going to have runs, so we’ve just got to go out there and pitch our game.”
It also doesn’t hurt that their head coach is a former Major League pitcher.
“Going out as a pitcher, you want to know: ‘If I make a mistake we’ll be OK,’ “ Columbia head coach Heath Phillips said. “You don’t want to go out there and say, ‘Man, I have to be perfect tonight.’ Early on in the season when the pitching was kind of up and down, I think that’s what was kind of going on. Those starters had to go out there and shut them down, and early in the season when everybody strikes out, it’s hard to do that. I think now they’ve got a lot more confidence at the plate, which is huge. Their mental approach is huge, and it’s helping everybody.”
No matter who you talk to, they all tell you the same thing: The Tigers lacked an approach at the plate early in the year, which led to an 0-4 start and a 5-6 record through 11 games. The Tigers only scored more than five runs twice in those 11 games.
They’ve scored at least five in 10 games since, including Tuesday’s 9-2 win over Vanguard to clinch a regional playoff berth.
“During the first half of the season our whole team was taking selfish at-bats, but now ever since that [Gainesville] game, we’ve been looking at the at-bats differently, more from a team benefit,” Thomas said. “Our approach has been a lot better from a whole team view, and that shows with our average. We’re not trying to do too much and do everything in one swing.”
Tuesday’s win over Vanguard was Columbia’s fifth straight as it heads into tonight’s district title game against Middleburg. The Broncos didn’t win a single district game during the regular season but managed to upset Gainesville 7-6 in the other district semifinal.
Phillips and the team stayed around to watch the result Tuesday night, gathering some extra intel on a team they defeated twice this season as they go for their second straight district title.
Gainesville overlooked Middleburg.
Columbia doesn’t want to do the same.
“We just need to stay loose and have fun,” Phillips said. “We’re in the state playoffs. We’re in a position to win a district title, so let’s go win it.”