EARLY — The Early Longhorns have see-sawed their way into the Class 2A baseball playoffs, where a string of consistent performances could produce a postseason run reminiscent of two springs ago.
The Longhorns (14-12), the third seed from District 6-2A, will battle the District 5-2A runner-up Coahoma Bulldogs (17-8) in a best-of-three Region I-2A bi-district playoff series at Colt Stadium in San Angelo. Game 1 is set for 7 p.m. today with Games 2 and 3, if necessary, to follow Saturday at 4 p.m.
In 2005, Early came out of nowhere and advanced to the regional championship series, one step shy of qualifying for the state tournament in Round Rock.
After missing the postseason last year, Early is again flying under the radar as the playoffs begin. But, the Longhorns will need to steady themselves in order to make another lengthy postseason run.
The three-team District 6-2A tournament, which determined the league’s second and third playoff seeds, summed up the Longhorns’ inconsistency this season.
Early appeared to be firing on all cylinders when it opened the tournament with a 10-4 pasting of Bangs on Friday. Bangs and Early split their first two meetings with the Dragons owning the last victory heading into the tournament.
Then on Tuesday, the Longhorns were dealt a 12-7 loss by a Coleman squad Early had swept in two district meetings, outscoring the Bluecats by a combined score of 14-4.
“We just have to regroup,” said Early head coach Randy Jones, whose team had one storm-filled day to prepare for Coahoma. “Baseball has its ups and downs and the sun will shine another day. We’re not happy with Tuesday’s result, but we still control what’s ahead of us.”
The Longhorns and Coahoma crossed paths during the 2005 postseason, with Early coming out on top at the same site of this series. But Jones stated the success the Longhorns enjoyed two years ago will have no bearing on what occurs this weekend.
“There’s no reason to look that far back because both teams are a lot different,” Jones said. “Coahoma is pretty talented. They hit the ball well, they’ve got good pitching, they’re solid all around, plus they have a lot of tradition.”
The Bulldogs won all but three of their 12 district games and had a four-game win streak intact before dropping the regular season finale to district champion Anson, 9-2. Coahoma opened 5-2A action with five straight wins before suffering back-to-back losses to Anson and Colorado City.
In district play, the Bulldogs averaged 12.3 runs per game and scored no less than 12 runs in all nine of their district wins. That could pose a problem for an Early pitching staff that has struggled as of late.
The Longhorns, who have dropped six of their last nine games, have allowed 7.7 runs per game during that stretch and have given up at least a dozen runs on four occasions.
Jones stated he will likely send Cale Bearden, who has been the Longhorns’ most consistent pitcher of late, to the mound in Game 1. Other arms available throughout the series include John Atchley, Cody Thompson and Ben Hager.
Offensively, Early will face a Coahoma pitching staff that surrendered 4.5 runs per game in district and allowed more than six runs just twice.
The Longhorns have been a team that truly depends on the top of the order to set the table for the entire offense, as was again evidenced in the 6-2A tournament.
Top three hitters Mitchell Bailey, Bob Atchley and Taylor Singleton combined to go 9-for-12 with seven RBIs and five runs scored against Bangs. But in the Coleman game, the trio mustered just three hits, one RBI and one run scored between them.
With the top of the order rarely on board, it nullified Bearden’s 3-for-5 effort out of the clean-up spot.
“A lot of times that all goes with stringing together hits,” Jones said. “If the top of the order is hitting, that will carry down to the bottom also. Hitting is contagious. We have to have very aggressive at-bats, but still be disciplined at the plate. We can’t take good pitches and swing at bad ones. We’ve got to hit good pitches.”
The winner of the bi-district series will advance to the area round and take on 8-2A champion Blanco (19-7).