By SETH STRINGER
Had you told Doug Martin that he'd get 6 1/3 innings of a quality start from reliever John Barr and NWF State would lead Santa Fe headed into the fifth inning, the Raiders skipper would've taken it.
Barr pitched beautifully and NWF State began Monday's tilt against Sante Fe with a Daino Deas leadoff triple and an RBI double from Landon Crowder, but that would be the lone highlights from the Raiders' season-ending 7-1 loss at at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland.
"We battled to the very end," Martin said. "We had two days down here that were our days and two days down here that weren't our days. We battled to the end and I'm proud of these guys. They took it hard at the end because they really have joined together to make a true team. I can't say enough about their character or well they played."
Against teams not named Santa Fe, the eighth-seeded Raiders were 2-0 in the showcase with wins over ninth-seeded Eastern Florida State and sixth-seeded St. Johns River State. But the third-seeded Saints outscored the Raiders 14-3 in two wins, the other a 7-2 victory on Saturday.
"They got us twice and they're the defending state champs for a reason," said Martin, who in 2015 led the Raiders to a Region 8 crown and later a national championship. "But at the same time I'm really proud of our guys and proud of the program. We've gone three years on a row to the state tournament, so the program is on good footing. We'd only been to the state tourney three times in a row one other time, so to be competitive statewide and winning game in the tournament and then winning it all one year, we know the program's in good shape. There's a sustainability of success and we've proven we're not just a one-year wonder. We've been in it every year and we'll be in it next year."
With NWF State forced to turn to the bullpen after advancing to the fourth day of the state tournament, Barr struck out seven and allowed just three runs — two earned — on seven hits and three walks over 6 1/3. It was just the sophomore righty's third start of the year, easily besting his previous high of five innings and lowering his ERA to 3.49.
"He was outstanding today," Martin said. "He really stepped up and answered the bell for us because we were out of starting pitchers. He came up with some big pitches and gave us a shot to win."
Unfortunately Santa Fe starter Sean Gabel was better.
Gabel went the distance in a four-hitter, striking out six and allowing only that first-inning run as he improved to 9-1 on the season and lowered his ERA to 2.78.
"We had a triple to lead things off and a double to score a run and then we couldn't get any hits after that," Martin said. "We hit the ball hard a few times but just right at them. That can discourage you sometimes."
As Gabel posted zeros, Santa Fe gave him a 2-1 lead in the fifth inning with the help of NWF State's defense. Leo Rodriguez smacked a leadoff double and later came around on an RBI single from Nick Lentz. A misplayed ball in center led to Lentz reaching third and he later scored on a wild pitch.
An inning later Barr escaped a jam that featured runners on second and third with no outs and then the bases load with one out, but the Saints later tacked on insurance runs in the seventh and ninth frames
After Barr exited in the seventh with one out and a runner on first, Cason Greathouse gave up a single and a run scored on a wild pitch to push the deficit to 3-1.
Later in the ninth, Santa Fe put the game out of reach as Stephen Smith unloaded on a three-run bomb against Greathouse and Dillon Reed laced an inside-the-park solo homer off Breonn Pooler to push the lead to 7-1.
"I know the score looks bad, but we were right in it before that three-run homer," Martin said. "It was a hard-fought game."
The loss snaps an impressive close to the season for the Raiders, who won four of their final five Panhandle Conference games to clinch runner-up to Chipola. The Raiders finished 14-10 in the conference, 19-6 at home and 34-17 overall.