STARKVILLE — Danny Carlisle has an interesting approach to the Starkville High School baseball team”s opening-round playoff series against Madison Central.
The Jaguars (24-2) play host to the Yellow Jackets (14-7) at 7 tonight in the first game of the best-of-three Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A series.
Madison Central has allowed one run or pitched a shutout in 14 games this season, and has a team ERA of 1.26. There aren”t many teams that will walk into a park with what Carlisle called “seven or eight R.J. Johnsons,” but he likes his team”s chances against Madison Central sooner in the playoffs rather than later.
“You”re going to have to play them either way it goes,” Carlisle said Wednesday before practice. “Do you want to play them early when your arms or fresh, or do you want to catch them in the third round when your arms are used up?”
Carlisle is banking on a string of solid starts from R.J. Johnson (6-2, 2.73 ERA) and Nick Brooks (4-5, 4.85 ERA) to continue in the series, which was moved up a day today and Friday because of rainy forecasts for the weekend.
Johnson earned a 4-1 win against South Panola on April 20, while Brooks is coming off losses to Tupelo and Meridian.
With a shorter porch at the defending state champions” home park, Carlisle is keen to avoid a lapse in concentration against a lineup that “has no holes.”
“You make a mistake here and the ball won”t leave the yard. You make a mistake against a good hitting team like they are and it can cost you,” Carlisle said. “They”ve got a bunch of high batting averages and their park is not as big as ours. And I”ve never been down there to their park when the wind wasn”t blowing right out to left field.”
Carlisle said Wednesday he was undecided on whether Johnson or Brooks would start tonight on the mound. The pitcher who doesn”t start tonight likely will get the nod at 4 p.m. Friday in Starkville.
The Yellow Jackets could be shorthanded on the mound because pitcher Shaquille Hill needed to get stitches after he injured his chin in a fall at school.
The uncertain status of Hill, who threw 6 1/3 innings and gave up two earned runs in a home loss to Tupelo, is just one more reason the Yellow Jackets are underdogs.
Last year, Starkville was favored to beat Vicksburg but watched a 1-0 series lead evaporate into an early playoff exit.
Senior infielder Cody Berryhill and senior outfielder Chuck Tillery are excited to play without the pressure of being favored.
“We were so focused on winning that game last year instead of winning every game, and I think it took something out of us,” Berryhill said. “We have more to play for, so I think we”ll have more intensity than they will. I think that will help fuel us to beat them this series.”
Tillery, who leads the team in runs scored and stolen bases, believes the team”s hot-and-cold performances at the plate won”t hit a chill in the playoffs because the team will see quality pitching.
“If we see it, we will hit it,” Tillery said. “We”ve had some games where we haven”t hit well, but against teams that throw well we”ve put the ball in play. We just have to stay focused every time we”re at the plate.”
The ultimate equalizer, in Carlisle”s mind, will be his players” mental strength. Against a loaded team, there”s bound to be adversity, especially on the road. Carlisle believes last year”s underclassmen who experienced postseason play for the first time are better equipped than last season”s team.
“Everyone”s talking about them being 24-2, but heck, a little bit of luck and we”re right there. But you make your own luck and get a play or two — that”s baseball,” Carlisle said. “But you”ve got to be 100 percent into that game, and with our players a year older I feel really good about our chances. One of the guys said the other day ”we”re going to play a game, not go to war.” That”s them talking amongst themselves, and it puts it in a whole different perspective. We”re not fighting down there, it”s a game we”re hoping to play to our best ability.”
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