By JUSTIN RAINS
The Cayuga baseball team caught a bit of a break last week, and they’ve got district foe Martin’s Mill to thank for making it happen.
After falling to rival Kerens, 2-1, in extra innings earlier this season, it appeared as if the Wildcats would be forced to beat the Bobcats twice before the end of the regular season — in their final meeting and then in a tiebreaker game — to earn the District 19-A title.
Thanks to a Martin’s Mill-upset of the state-ranked Bobcats, that’s no longer necessary. Now, all that Cayuga has to do is knock off Kerens once, when they meet at 6 p.m. tonight at Cayuga High School.
“It was a big relief. We really didn’t want to get into a playoff situation with them, just from a pitching stand-point and having to play them on back-to-back days.
“Plus it sets up a really great situation, a win-or-go home situation.”
The difference between first-place and second in 19-A is rather striking.
First, there’s the district title in itself, a badge of honor for a Cayuga team that’s won three-straight crowns and can clinch its fourth-straight 20-win regular season with a victory tonight.
Second, and maybe more importantly in the long run, is the potential playoff gauntlet the league’s second-place team would face in the postseason.
The district winner gets a bye into the area round and then would face the winner of the game between the second-place team from District 18-A and the third-place team from 17-A — neither of which are particularly daunting.
However, the loser of tonight’s game would finish second, taking on the third-place team from a stacked district that includes No. 1 Carlisle, No. 5 Big Sandy and long-time Cayuga nemesis Overton as its playoff teams.
Carlisle would most likely then be looming in the regional quarterfinal, while tonight’s winner won’t see the top-ranked Indians until the regional final, if both teams were to advance that far.
“The first thing is you get the bye and that’s big at our level because of pitching scenarios,” Branch said. “The path in the playoffs is just better as a one-seed, because the quality of opponents on the other side of the bracket is not as strong as if you go in as a two-seed.
“You always want to be that one-seed because you feel better about your chances of winning.”
The first Cayuga/Kerens game of the year was a pitcher’s duel to its core.
The game went into extra innings without a run being scored, before Cayuga took a 1-0 lead in the top of the eighth.
In the bottom of the frame, however, the Bobcats scored two runs on an infield hit, a sacrifice bunt, a passed ball and then a balk on Cayuga pitcher Chantz Holland, who took the loss.
The loss was a tough result for Holland (9-1, 0.53 ERA on the year), who’ll take the ball tonight for the Wildcats as well. The Vernon College-bound senior threw seven masterful innings, and only gave up three hits in the game while striking out 10.
But, Cayuga committed four errors in the game.
“I think the winner of this game is going to be the team that commits the fewest mistakes,” Branch said. “Runs are going to come at a premium.
“All year we’ve played great defense, that’s been our strong-point. We just picked that game to play really bad. But, at home I would think that we’ll play better.”
On the other side, Holland was matched pitch-for-pitch by Kerens ace Brett Anderson (7-1, 1.28 ERA), who’ll oppose him once again tonight.
The Kerens’ left hander struck out 13 through seven innings in the game, earning the win.
“We have to be more prepared this time to hit his off-speed stuff. The last time we played 75 percent of his pitches were off-speed and we weren’t prepared for it.
“We have to take a better approach and this time we have to approach him as an off-speed pitcher and then adjust to his fastball.”
Sports editor Justin Rains can be reached via email at email@example.com