April 5, 2014 8:24:37 PM
Columbus High School senior Michael Sturdivant admits the Falcons were in need of a second boost of confidence.
After winning the first 14 games of the season and earning a statewide ranking for the first time, Columbus hit some major adversity with back-to-back losses to Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A, Region 3 rival Northwest Rankin.
Those disappointed feelings were in the rear-view mirror Saturday afternoon as Columbus finished a 3-0 week with a 6-0 shutout of fellow region rival Starkville at Sammy Fletcher Field.
"I think we forgot for a little while that we are a good baseball team," Sturdivant said. "We really needed something good to happen to re-enforce the type of team that we are. We played a lot better this week and did the things that we are capable of doing to win games."
Columbus senior Trace Lee had missed his last two starts due to some back stiffness. Unfortunately for Starkville, Lee did make his Saturday start.
Facing only 28 batters in the 1-hour, 23-minute game, Lee allowed three hits and struck out 13 as Columbus shut out Starkville for the second time this week. Lee was scratched at the last minute Tuesday night and Hunter Mullis stepped in to throw a 13-0, six-inning no-hitter.
"We give all of the glory to God because he has helped us through our time of adversity," Lee said. "You saw a team that was hungry and ready to compete again this week. We feel like we have a chance to make this a special season."
Columbus, ranked 11th this week by the Clarion-Ledger, improved to 17-2 overall and 4-2 in region play. With three region games remaining, Columbus clinched a fourth straight playoff berth with Saturday's win. With the tie-breaker on both Madison Central and Starkville now, Columbus stands one win away from nailing down the No. 2 seed from the region. Madison Central upset Northwest Rankin Thursday night, meaning Columbus is also back to within a game of the region lead.
"We are really excited about putting another year on that sign," said Columbus coach Jeffrey Cook, pointing to an outfield sign at the stadium which lists playoff appearances. "It's a big deal to do that four straight years. At the same time, we want to be region champions. We would like to add a year to that sign too before we are done."
Less than two weeks ago, Northwest Rankin stopped the Columbus win streak with a 6-3 victory. Two days later, the Cougars beat the Falcons by run rule.
"You really have to be worried about your confidence level after that," Cook said. "We had some players sick and some players battling through injury during that series. Still, you have to show up and play the games. Sometimes, when you lose like that, it is hard to come back. Starkville was beating Madison Central at the same time we were losing, so that was a concern. To be able to turn things back around and win twice the way we did is very big for this team."
The week actually began with a 14-0 non-region win over West Lowndes Monday night.
"Things clicked again," Sturdivant said. "I don't think we ever doubted ourselves. However, you knew something was missing. We didn't have everything all together like we should. We came out and won that game (at West Lowndes) and it was like, everything came back to us. Once we had the confidence back, Hunter and Trace made things easy on us the way they pitched."
Lee was dominant. After Starkville (11-7, 2-4) loaded the bases in the first inning, threats were few and far between. A strong of 10 straight retired batters was halted by back-to-back walks in the sixth inning. Lee finished with five strikeouts of the final seven batters and the sixth-inning threat was a distant memory.
"The Lee kid is good," Starkville coach Travis Garner said. "He hadn't pitched in 11 days. I told the club before they game more than likely he is going to come out a little rusty and after that he will settle down and be pretty good. That is exactly what happened."
While the offense was free flowing against West Lowndes Monday and Starkville Tuesday, the Falcons went the small ball and timely hitting route Saturday.
Columbus scored three times in the second inning with an RBI-double by Sturdivant and a perfectly-executed squeeze bunt by Javonta Smith being the big blows. Mullis mashed a critical two-run double in a three-run fourth inning.
"At some times, it has been the bottom of the lineup and at others, it has been the top of the lineup," Mullis said. "What you are seeing right now is a team that is hitting from top to bottom. When we do that, we can be a dangerous team."
Columbus finished with only five hits and made only one error in the contest. Starkville's Ben Burrell was the lone multiple hitter for either team in the contest.
"I really liked our timely hitting today," Cook said. "I like how we shifted our approach in certain situations to make sure we got runs home. Those are the kinds of things that we do when we are playing with confidence."
Confidence is back for Columbus at a critical time. The Falcons can set up a showdown for first place in the region Friday night against Northwest Rankin at home by winning Tuesday at Madison Central.
"We wanted to win a state championship ring in football but it didn't happen," Lee said. "That is the best thing about being a multiple-sport athlete is you get another chance. We are playing for a championship and we believe in our capabilities. We feel like we have a chance to show just how special the Columbus Falcons baseball team really is."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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