April 16, 2014 10:33:45 PM
STARKVILLE -- Starkville High School's exclusion from the Mississippi High School Activities Association baseball playoffs boiled down to one overriding factor.
Quite simply, Starkville could not score against Columbus.
With the final playoff berth from Class 6A, Region 3 on the line, Starkville was blanked for the third time this season by Columbus, falling 2-0 in eight innings Wednesday night at Carlisle Field.
Columbus had already nailed down the No. 2 spot from the region. Madison Central secured the third and final playoff spot from the region as it finishes region play one full game ahead of Starkville in the standings.
"We competed our tails off," Starkville first-year coach Travis Garner said. "(Colbey) Rivers was dynamite. (Columbus) is a great club. We threw zero for zero. (This is) one of those things that is disappointing, but hopefully they will learn from it and get better."
In the first meeting, Hunter Mullis threw a six-inning no-hitter in a 13-0 Columbus win. In the second meeting, Trace Lee threw a complete-game three-hit shutout in a 6-0 Columbus win. Wednesday night, Mullis and Lee combined on a two-hit shutout.
In 21 innings of play against one of its biggest rivals, Starkville managed five total base hits and only moved five runners into scoring position.
"It has been the story of our season," Columbus coach Jeffrey Cook said. "We really pitched it great. Hunter had control of all of his pitches and did a tremendous job of keeping them off-balanced. We got the one big defensive play we needed (a double play ball with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth inning) and the one big hit we needed (a two-run single by Greg Sykes in the eighth inning)."
The teams played a 1-hour, 23-minute game earlier at Columbus. Wednesday's series finale followed a similar refrain with regulation time being clicked off in easily under two hours.
Columbus (18-5, 5-4 region) collected six hits but managed its only major threats in the first and eighth innings.
While Starkville faced a must-win situation Wednesday night, Cook felt like his squad was in a similar position. The Falcons dropped all three games they played last week - to region rivals Northwest Rankin and Madison Central and county rival New Hope.
"We really looked at it as must-win for us too," Cook said. "We had really gone through a rough stretch in the past week. The kids needed to feel good about themselves again. Even though we had a couple of mistakes in the field, we really played well. Starkville has such a fine team. It is really hard to believe that one pitching staff could set the tone the way ours did in the series."
Gavonta Webb and Greg Sykes each had multiple hits for the Falcons.
Starkville (12-11, 2-7) had many more opportunities this time off Mullis but could not take advantage. Starkville had two base hits, drew three walks and also benefited from three errors by the Falcons. Still, Mullis proved equal to the task with nine strikeouts. Lee walked one before snuffing the Yellow Jackets' final threat in the home half of the eighth inning. Rivers was almost as good as he went the distance, allowing six hits and two runs, with four strikeouts and three walks.
"Coming in here we returned four starters," Garner said. "There are games where we start seven sophomores. This year was a struggle. We kept our heads above water in one of the toughest divisions and we will be stronger for it."
Meanwhile, Columbus plays at Caledonia Tuesday and then readies for a fourth straight playoff appearance. Columbus will face Olive Branch in the play-in round of the MHSAA Class 6A playoffs. That best-of-three series will be played next Thursday in Columbus, next Friday in Olive Branch and next Saturday in Columbus (if necessary).
"We are excited about the playoffs and another chance to compete for a state championship," Lee said. "Even though the ups and downs, we have kept our composure and kept fighting hard. The team has really grown stronger through the wins and the losses. When we pitch it like we can, we have a chance to compete with some of the best teams in the state. We are looking forward to the postseason and seeing what we can do."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter