The St. Augustine Yellow Jackets are a confident bunch right now. They’re also realistic, coach Kevin Hayes said.
St. Augustine (16-13) will visit Nease (17-11) at 7 tonight in a Region 1-7A baseball semifinal. The winner will be one step away from the state final four.
“They know they’ve got to play their best game, and that’s what they’re prepared to do,” Hayes said of his players.
St. Augustine has not defeated Nease on the baseball diamond in six years. This season alone, the Panthers have won three straight against their district rivals by a combined score of 24-5.
And yet Nease coach Jeremiah Klosterman is a bit nervous.
“It’s always tough to beat a team four times in a row,” Klosterman said. “But this is definitely not the same bunch we beat in the regular season. Their confidence level is at a totally different place.”
After beating the Jackets by identical 7-1 scores on consecutive nights in late March, the Panthers cruised to a 10-3 win over St. Augustine on May 3 in the district championship game. But the Jackets were playing their third game in three days and didn’t have sophomore Nick Phifer on the mound.
The day before, Phifer tossed a two-hit shutout against top district seed Creekside.
He also got the win last week when the Jackets defeated Columbia 5-4 for their first regional playoff victory in 63 years.
“He’s throwing that changeup a lot more than when we saw him in the regular season,” Klosterman said. “So he’s found that pitch.”
A pitcher that can keep the score down complements St. Augustine’s small-ball mentality at the plate.
“They lay down bunts in counts you don’t expect. They’re going to hit and run. They’re going to bunt with two two strikes. They’ll do unconventional things and put you on your heels,” Klosterman said.
The Jackets’ unorthodox approach has produced eight wins in their last 10 games.
“We take every inch we can get,” St. Augustine left fielder Jacob Swindle said.
They will probably need to against a Nease team that has solid pitching and has scored 25 runs in its past three games.
Eric Linder, who allowed one earned run in the Panthers’ 5-3 win over Ocala Vanguard in a regional quarterfinal last week, will start again tonight with seniors Leighton Alley and Collin Garner available if necessary.
“My guys know they have to play mistake-free baseball to have a chance,” Hayes said.