The Wildcats lost their first three games of the year and were 3-6 after their first nine games. Since then, Cleveland has won 15 of its last 17 to enter the 4A State Baseball Playoffs with an 18-8 record and a Region 3-4A Championship.
Cleveland will try to continue its good fortune in the first round of the playoffs when the team takes on the Houston High School Hilltoppers in a best-of-three series. The first game will be played at Cleveland on Thursday at 7 p.m., followed by the second game in Houston on Friday at 6 p.m. Game three, if necessary, will be played at 2 p.m. in Cleveland on Saturday.
Cleveland High head baseball coach Steve Wies said the team has to look at this game like any other game.
“We try to impress upon them to think of it as just another game on our schedule,” Wies said. “We try to look at all of our opponents as a number one, top ten opponent in the state. That goes from region opponents to non region.”
The Wildcats are hitting .287 as a team. Junior Matthew Hardman (.400 avg., 1 HR, 28 RBIs, 25 runs), senior Dillon Norwood (.370 avg., 2 HR, 41 RBIs, 30 runs), sophomore Dalton Lambre (.364 avg., 10 RBIs, 33 runs) and senior Jordan Burchfield (.292 avg., 16 RBIs, 30 runs) have led the Wildcats at the plate this year.
Pitching wise, Cleveland has a 3.73 team ERA. Hardman has been the ace of Cleveland’s staff by going 6-3 with a 2.98 ERA. He has given up 54 hits with 16 walks and 54 strikeouts in 49.1 innings of work. Freshman Hunter Riggins (4-1, 4.02 ERA), Burchfield (3-1, 4.07 ERA), sophomore Drew Lambre 2-1, 5.65 ERA) and Norwood (3-0, 1.81 ERA, 2SV) have also thrown several quality innings for Cleveland.
One thing that has helped is the fact that Cleveland has improved in close ball games. For the year, the Wildcats are 5-3 in games decided by three runs or less and 4-2 in games decided by two runs or less.
“If you go back and look at a lot of the games we’ve won and even the ones we’ve lost, we’ve been in those games and won some of those games coming from behind,” Wies said. “Having that experience playing in tight ball games is going to help you come playoff time. The losses we’ve had were due to one bad inning each game.”
Houston will enter the game with a 22-6-1 record, according to maxpreps. Houston, who finished second in Region 4 during the regular season, won two straight games from Ripley 4-2 and 4-1 in the play-in series last week.
On offense, Houston is hitting .294 as a team. Junior Reid Carter (.361 avg., 16 RBIs, 14 runs), senior Austin Burdine (.347 avg., 15 RBIs, 27 runs), eighth grader Luke Hancock (.319 avg., 27 RBIs) and junior Garrison Howell have led the Hilltoppers offense.
Pitching wise, Houston has an impressive 2.02 ERA. Burdine (5-2, 0.72 ERA), sophomore Clay Hillhouse (5-1, 2.22 ERA), freshman Anekein Rich (4-1, 3.13 ERA) and Carter (2-1, 3.45 ERA) have led the pitching. Houston also has a .947 fielding percentage.
“They’re going to be a solid ball club,” Wies said. “Being good at one facet of the game doesn’t make you successful. Being good at two or all three will make you successful. They can hit, pitch and play defense.”
One edge that might work in Cleveland’s favor is the fact that the Wildcats have the homefield advantage and will open the series in Cleveland.
“It gives you a since of comfort, getting ready to play on your home field in front of your home fans,” Wies said. “When you have pretty stout competitors, you still have to make things happen.”
The winner of the Cleveland-Houston series will play the winner of the Pontotoc-Kosciusko series in the second round next week.