The Columbia (Lake City) Tigers had used good pitching and timely hitting in their run to their first regional baseball title and first appearance in the Class 5A state semifinals.
But Thursday afternoon at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, they ran into a dominant pitcher in Garrett Smith for Eau Gallie (Melbourne). And just like that, the Tigers’ state championship dream was over.
Smith, a junior left-hander, pitched a two-hit shutout with 12 strikeouts and only one walk as Eau Gallie blanked Columbia, 6-0, in a semifinal game in Fort Myers.
Eau Gallie (22-6) will play in its first state championship game appearance in school history on Saturday at 1 p.m. against Jesuit (Tampa). Jesuit slipped past Naples, 5-2, in the other 5A semifinal contest on Thursday.
Columbia (22-9) advanced to Fort Myers by defeating defending state champion Mosley (Lynn Haven) in the 5A Region 1 semifinal, then rallying past Lincoln (Tallahassee), 7-6, in the bottom of the seventh inning of the Region 1 final on Monday.
But the Tigers could never get anything going against Eau Gallie, who was playing in only their second state semifinal game and first since 1983.
Things actually started well for the Tigers in the first. Junior pitcher Brayden Thomas retired the Commodores in order.
Then in the bottom of the inning, junior Hayden Gustavson reached on an error and senior Truitt Todd singled courtesy runner Bynton Edge to third base. But Thomas grounded into a fielder’s choice at second to end the inning.
And that was basically the last, best scoring opportunity for Columbia in the game.
Meanwhile, Eau Gallie got the bats going in the second inning. After Thomas retired the first two batters of the inning, Joelvis Tejada singled, Daniel Snowden walked, and Christian Neal drove in Tejada with an RBI single to give the Commodores a 1-0 lead.
“If we took the lead there and put some pressure on their pitcher early on the game it could have been different,” Tigers’ first-year coach Chris Howard said. “We just didn’t get the little things done in this game.”
Eau Gallie opened up the game in the third frame with three runs, again with two outs. Thomas walked two and gave up a single to Brandon Bragg to load the bases, and was replaced on the mound by junior Matt Dumas. Dumas proceeded to walk Tejada with the bases loaded to bring in the second run, then Snowden blooped a two-run single to right field to extend the lead to 4-0.
Bragg brought in two more runs with two outs in the fourth with a single off Gustavson, extending the lead to 6-0.
Smith continued to roll through the Tigers’ order. He walked Gustavson to begin the bottom of the fourth before retiring the next six Columbia batters.
Dumas led off the sixth with an infield hit but was immediately thrown out trying to steal second by Eau Gallie catcher Riley Jackson. Smith then swept through the next six batters to complete the shutout.
“That’s the best game he’s ever thrown,” Eau Gallie coach Bob Collins said. “He was our number one pitcher last season, but has been injured and just came back. He took over the game from the start.”
Smith ended with 12 strikeouts, including two each in the second through sixth innings and one each in the first and seventh. He only allowed one ball out of the infield—Todd’s single in the first inning.
Bragg went 3-for-4 with two RBI and a run scored, Snowden drove in two runs and Neal also was 3-for-4 with an RBI.
For Columbia, they will lose Todd, who is headed to Florida State College of Jacksonville (FSCJ), along with Jacksonville University signee Brett Howard, and another FSCJ signee, Kade Jackson. But Gustavson, an FSU commit, along with Thomas and Dumas, will return next season to form the core of a Tigers’ team that looks to return to the Final Four.
Chris Howard, who led Hamilton County (Jasper) to the 1A state semifinals in 2015 and 2021, got the Tigers there his first season in Lake City. He is now 0-for-3 in state semifinal matchups, but is proud of this group and sees a bright future.
“I’m starting to kind of feel like the Buffalo Bills of the state semifinals in baseball,” he said. “But it’s not easy to win at this level because all the teams are really good. We are a really good team as well and it’s been enjoyable leading this team. I think we can do it again after this experience and the attitude we should have.”
The Keystone Heights softball season came to an end on Thursday night with a 3-2 loss at top seed Baldwin in the Class 3A-Region 1 Final.
Alaina Kinsal put Keystone in front early with a solo home run in the top of the first and Delia Johnson hit a solo home run in the top of the sixth for the Indians to bring them within 3-2.
The Indians finished their season 19-10.