On Monday night in Lake City, the Columbia baseball team was one out away from its first state final four in program history.
That changed with one swing of the bat as Lincoln (Tallahassee) senior Andrew Wallace tripled to right field with the bases loaded to give the visiting Trojans (12-18) a 6-4 lead after trailing 4-2 entering the final inning.
It looked like the Tigers’ dream season would end in a nightmare.
However, Columbia responded with three runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to stun Lincoln, 7-6, in the Class 5A-Region 1 Final and earn its first-ever baseball trip to the state semifinals.
Columbia (22-8) will play Eau Gallie (Melbourne) at 4 p.m. on Wednesday in the Class 1A state semifinals at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers. Eau Gallie edged New Smyrna Beach, 8-7, to advance.
“It’s kind of a ‘we just did what they said can’t be done’ feeling,” said first-year Columbia coach Chris Howard, who took Hamilton County (Jasper) to Fort Myers last season where they lost to eventual 1A state champion Newberry, 3-2, in the state semifinals. “I’m still in shock right now.”
The ending was definitely shocking.
With Columbia holding a two-run lead heading into the top of the seventh inning, Lincoln sent eight batters to the plate and scored four runs on two hits, two walks (one intentional), and a hit batsman to take a two-run lead.
Two batters prior to Wallace yielded a fielder’s choice with a throw home to catcher Hayden Gustavson, an FSU commit, who dropped the ball on a tag out but picked up the ball and still recorded the out at the plate.
It was one of three putouts at home plate, including a throw from center fielder Matt Dumas to Gustavson in the top of the first inning after Lincoln had taken a 1-0 lead.
“I guess because he is so small people keep running on him,” Howard said of Dumas. “He’s got a bazooka for an arm though.”
The other big play came in the fourth inning.
With Columbia holding a 4-2 lead, Lincoln’s Eric Parker singled to center field. It appeared Cale Cox, who had a two-out infield hit, would score. However, Dumas hit his shortstop on the relay and Brayden Thomas gunned down Cox at the plate to end the inning.
“We worked on that relay yesterday and lo and behold it come into play,” Howard said.
Dumas estimates that’s the fourth or fifth runner he has thrown out at the plate this year.
“They just keep running on us and we’re going to do the same thing,” Dumas said. “Our defense is what’s going to be what wins it for us. Our offense is continually getting better so defense is what we’ve got to do.”
Truitt Todd, who will be pitching at FSCJ next season, threw 6.2 innings before being relieved by Dumas in the seventh inning.
“The first inning was a little rusty, but I started throwing strikes again, got outs, the defense made the plays that we needed, and we got out of there with a win,” Todd said.
The senior also added an RBI single in the third inning to help give Columbia its first lead of the game.
“It’s an unreal experience,” Todd said of being the first team in program history to make the state tournament. “I feel like this is a team that can win it all.”
The Tigers earned that opportunity in the bottom of the seventh.
Trailing 6-4, Brent Howard led off with a walk and Gustavson reached on an error at third base with no outs. Todd walked to load the bases and Thomas drove in two runs with a single to left field to tie the game at 6-6.
“He’s been clutch all year for us,” Howard said of Thomas. “We call him lucky, but he seems to do it all the time. Old saying, after twice it’s not luck, I guess.”
After an intentional walk to Ty Jackson to load the bases and a fielder’s choice putout at the plate for the first out, Ty Floyd’s fly ball to right field was deep enough to bring home Thomas with the game-winning run.
“It means everything to me,” Howard said of the trip to Fort Myers. “This is why I came here and hopefully we can keep it going for years to come.”