PANAMA CITY – Down 5-0 on the road to Gulf Coast State entering the top of the fourth, NWF State's win streak and Panhandle Conference dominance appeared to hit a snag Tuesday.
But this is the Raiders we're talking about. No deficit is too large.
Embracing their newly-minted ranks – ninth in the country, third in Region 8 – the Raiders (26-6, 7-1 in Panhandle) answered with a six-run fourth frame en route to 7-5 win and their seventh straight victory.
Timely hits and a dominant bullpen were key for the Raiders, who have now won 17 of 18 games and have followed up a 4-1 loss to Pensacola State by outscoring the Pirates and Commodores by a combined 58-9 over the last seven wins.
As for Tuesday's early-inning struggles, the five runs allowed over the first two innings were an anomaly for a pitching staff ranked among the tops in the country.
A 1.73 team ERA, 1.01 WHIP and a 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings will earn that hype.
Jacob Kush entered Tuesday with a team-best .98 ERA, .75 WHIP and 46 strikeouts over 27 2/3 innings, but he didn't make it out of the first inning.
The freshman righthander walked three, surrendered two hits and recorded just one out with four earned runs to his name.
No worries. His offense picked him up.
Kaden Polcovich hit a three-run homer as part of a six-run fourth to bounce Commodores starter Peyton Knight, who lasted just 3 1/3 innings after allowing five earned runs on four hits and a pair of walks.
"Polcovich clutched up and hit that home run," Gulf Coast State coach Mike Kandler said. "That's what he does. He's a good player, that's why he's going to Oklahoma State and some of these other guys aren't going to be able to play in a league like the Big 12."
Johnson tacked on a solo blast in the seventh as insurance to back a Raiders bullpen that did work over 8 2/3 innings with 12 strikeouts and just one run allowed on five hits.
Calvin Starnes followed Kush with 2 2/3 innings of one-run ball and was relieved by Mashall Hunt, who picked up his first win of the season with two scoreless frames.
"Their starter struggled, then their bullpen guys picked him up," Kandler said. "That's what's supposed to happen. So it is what is."
"All their guys are the same," Kandler said. "They throw two, three different pitches for strikes and they keep you off balance and they challenge the zone and they threw it well. Right now, we're not good enough to hit that."
The four-game sweep moves the Raiders to 7-1 in the Panhandle and the Commodores to 0-4. Chipola (20-9, 8-0) leads the Raiders by a game in the league, which appears to be a two-horse race with Pensacola State 1-7 and Tallahassee joining the Commodores at 0-4.
NWF State welcomes Tallahassee Thursday for a 5 p.m. first pitch, the start to a four-game series that features a 12/3 p.m. doubleheader on Saturday in Tallahassee before returning to Niceville on Tuesday for a 5 p.m. start.
Gulf Coast State travels to Pensacola State Thursday for the start of a four-game set.