After getting swept by West Marion in late March, the Columbia Wildcats were on the outside looking in on the playoff picture. But since then the Wildcats rallied to sweep both Jeff Davis County and Seminary to not only make the playoffs but secure the No. 2 seed from Region 8-3A and home-field advantage in the first round.
The path to the two-seed for Columbia (9-11-1) was straightforward going into last week: Beat Seminary. While there was a scenario the Wildcats still could have been the second seed with a loss, the Wildcats knew it was better to take care of business on their own rather than rely on getting some help.
That’s exactly what they did April 22, leaving Seminary with a 6-5 victory thanks to some timely hitting and stellar defense behind a solid performance on the mound. Dylan Wallace delivered with a two-run single to lead the charge at the plate, while Conner Cox doubled home a run and Keion Jackson ripped a run-scoring single. Carter Smith, who also earned the save with a 1-2-3 seventh inning, ripped a double and scored twice, and Tucker Lucas connected for a pair of base knocks.
Dylan Broom got the win, striking out seven and allowing three runs on seven hits in 4 2/3 innings. Jackson relieved Broom and allowed two runs on two hits and four walks while fanning two in 1 1/3 innings.
Head coach Kyle Lindsey said the coaching staff preached to the team all week to view it as a playoff week and bring the required focus and intensity.
“Our goal was to go 3-0 on the week, and we were able to do that with two wins over JDC then Thursday night was a good playoff atmosphere against Seminary. We were able to beat them to get the sweep over them to lock in that two-seed,” he said. “I talked to the guys how important it was to have home-field advantage in that first round. Any time you get in the playoffs and host Game 1, it’s huge as far as helping out the nerves of the guys and putting them in a familiar environment.”
Now that the regular season is wrapped up, Columbia can set its sights on Morton (8-15), who it will face in the first round.
“They’ve got some guys on the mound that can keep you off balance, but they don’t have anything too overpowering. Offensively they can find a way to create some runs, but they give up some runs on the defensive side of it as well,” Lindsey said. “Good, bad or ugly, it’s playoff baseball. There’s a little bit more on the line when it’s a win-or-go-home type game, so you have to be mentally tougher than the other side. You have to compete and not get caught up with what’s going on early in the game. I think we’ve done that lately, and I like where we’re at going in.”
Columbia loaded up its early non-district schedule with several top-notch opponents, and Lindsey said he thinks it’s paying off now as the Wildcats are playing their best baseball as they enter the postseason. He added it took some time to figure out how all the puzzle pieces fit together best when it comes to their lineup, and all of the experimenting helped create some experienced depth.
The Wildcats will host Game 1 Thursday, play at Morton in Game 2 Friday and will return home to host Game 3, if necessary, Saturday. All three games are scheduled to start at 7 p.m.
Lindsey said Tuesday that he hadn’t decided yet how he was going to line up his pitchers for the series, but the Wildcats have several options. Wallace (3.50 ERA), Broom (3.78 ERA) and Lucas (3.41 ERA) have all been solid as starters this season, while Nik Carney (4.64 ERA) has flashed as a long relief option. The potential wild card is Smith. While he has been primarily used as a late-inning reliever, he has been Columbia’s most reliable arm this season with a stellar 1.91 ERA, and he has been stretched out as far as 3 2/3 innings. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Lindsey opt to throw Smith a little longer in the postseason than normal, but the downside of a three-day, three-game series is managing pitch counts.
“If you run an arm out there for 50 pitches on Thursday, he’s cooked for the series. That plays a factor into things as well,” he said. “You have to make reads on guys early, whether they got it or they don’t, to extend their leash of cut him for pitch count purposes.”
With a win over Morton in the first round, the Wildcats will face either Magee (19-5) or Hazlehurst in the second round. Magee is ranked the No. 1 team in Class 3A, according to Capital Sports.