Melissa’s chore this week in the second round of the Class 4A Region II baseball playoffs? Scratch a few runs off a pitching staff that posted a cumulative ERA of 1.87 in district play. (For non-baseball types – that means these guys allowed less than two earned runs per nine innings of work.) This group plays for Decatur’s Eagles (22-8) and Melissa gets to tangle with them in a best-of-three series starting on Thursday, May 11, at Argyle.
Eagles ace Bryce Elder has a 0.92 ERA and sophomore Wilson Hicks owns a 0.52.
“They definitely have a good pitching staff,” Melissa head coach Jason Russell said before Tuesday’s practice. “Two are going to Tarleton (Trey Penny and Jaxon Terrell), one is going to Howard College (Elder) and then a sophomore. They do a good job.”
As for facing a dominant pitching staff, Russell said, “We’ll work on a few certain things, but we kind of try to kind of keep it business as usual. They do have some guys with a little bit of velocity, but we saw a little velocity last week. Really, we try to keep our approach the same and make them kind of come to us. We don’t try to change too much.”
One thing that will change for Melissa this week is the format – a best-of-3 series versus one-and-done.
“You still try to win them all,” Russell said. “It’s just a little less pressure, I guess, not to have to win that first one. Game 2 is always really important, so it changes a little bit in that aspect, but the goal is to go find a way to win two.”
Russell said his pitching rotation for Decatur is not yet set.
“We’re just going to kind of see how it goes," he said. "I feel confident with our staff. I know (the Eagles) have really good arms but I feel pretty good about ours too.”
Indeed, the Cards present a tough pitching staff as well, with Andrew Cole and Brady Morrison logging most of the work. Both have thrown 58 innings, with Cole posting a 1.57 ERA and 50 strikeouts and Morrison right there at 3.01 ERA and 46 Ks. Melissa hitters should challenge Decatur too. The Cards’ top batters, among those with over 50 plate appearances, are Tate Whittington (.485/66), Adam Davis (.418/91), Grayson Hurst (.400/55), Cole (.385/52), Morrison (.365/85) and Dalton Vestal (.347/95).
“I expect it going to be a tough series,” Decatur head coach Brian Tickell said by phone Tuesday. “They’re athletic and they compete. They swing the bats really well. Their pitchers are up there on the mound, competing.”
Tickell noted that he has pretty much the same core back from last season’s regional-quarterfinalist squad.
“We lost three seniors from last year and lost two seniors the year before that,” he said. “So this has been our nucleus for three years now. … Our 1 through 4 hitters have done a great job getting on base and getting guys in. They’re a tough out.”
Melissa is a district champ while the Eagles tied for second in 9-4A, then lost a coin flip to finish as a third seed. Neither of these teams allowed a run in their bi-district round. The Cards tromped past Quinlan Ford, 11-0, in a one-game decider with Cole on the mound. Decatur reached Area by sweeping a best-of-three from Dallas Pinkston, 14-0 and 15-0. In the former, Elder no-hit the Vikings in a run rule-shortened contest.
This year’s Melissa seniors were freshmen when the Cards made it to the fourth round of the playoffs in 2014. That push to the regional semifinals came in Russell’s first year at Melissa’s helm. Last year, the Cards advanced to the second, or Area, round.
“So we’ve had a little success,” Russell said. “We’ve been here before. … We’re playing with a lot of confidence. We’re excited to get out there Thursday.”
Vestal said Saturday’s bi-district win over Ford went quite well.
“Everything was clicking for the whole game," Vestal said. "Fielding, hitting, pitching was all good.”
Vestal added that the Cards’ plan versus Decatur involves “scrapping together some runs, not trying to do too much.”
He agreed that having won several 1- and 2-run games this season will give Melissa confidence in this week’s battle.
“It will because, with our pitching staff and their pitching staff, there won’t be a lot of runs,” Vestal said.
Said Cole of the Eagles, “They have good pitching. We’ve just to come out here and work hard and get used to being able to see it.”