By SETH STRINGER
LAKELAND – Postseason, meet NWF State. NWF State, meet postseason.
This could be a beautiful relationship.
Backed by 17 hits and five homers, including two off the bat of Brock Franks and a walkoff 450-foot bomb off the bat of Fort Walton Beach alumnus Justice Lucas, the Raiders opened the FCSAA tournament Friday with a 15-6 win over the State College of Florida at Joker Marchant Stadium.
"Our guys swung it real good," NWF State skipper Doug Martin said. "Manatees had some of the best pitching numbers in the state and the guy they were throwing (Aaron Brown) was an all-state selection. But our guys were motivated, they hung in there and they swung the bats good and battled with two strikes. They executed.
"People like to point out the homers but I'd like to points out the back-to-back bunts in the eighth and the swings with two strikes. We put it where they ain't and then Justice walked us off."
Lucas' three-run homer capped an eight-run eighth inning and 11 unanswered runs from the Raiders (41-10), who trailed 6-4 headed into the bottom of the fifth inning. But the Raiders, as they've done all year, rallied amid a hit parade that produced 17 base knocks and four walks.
Come the eighth inning, the Raiders got all the insurance they'd need.
A ball wasn't hit out of the infield until the seventh batter, yet a pair of bunts, two infield singles, a fielder's choice, two errors and a bloop single resulted in five runs. Then Lucas strolled to the plate with two outs and runners at second and third, both of whom he'd drove home when he jumped on an 0-2 pitch for a three-run walkoff homer that brought the NWF State dugout to the plate.
Now the Raiders, fresh off a Panhandle Conference title to garner the No. 2 seed in the double-elimination tournament, will square off against top-seeded Central Florida (45-7) tomorrow at 3 p.m. (CDT). Central Florida, the Mid-Florida Conference champs, defeated Broward 12-2 earlier in the day.
"They're the No. 1 team in the state and they have been all year long," said Martin, who'll throw Panhandle Pitcher of the Year Jacob Kelchner (2.65 ERA, 9-0 record). "It'll be a challenge for our team but we're excited and we're motivated. If we play a good ball game, we should be able to compete."
Central Florida, ranked tops in the state and second in the country, will present a tougher challenge than the Manatees, who just couldn't keep the Raiders off the basepaths.
Just how impressive was the hit parade?
The first seven NWF State batters had multi-hit effort and all 10 batters that strolled to the plate reached base at least once.
Kickstarting the hitting barrage was Justice Thompson, who belted a two-run blast over the left field wall as part of a 2-for-4 effort that resulted in three RBIs, two runs, two extra-base hits and a walk.
Jake Randa, whose sacrifice fly drove in Kyle Fitzgerald in the third frame to extend the lead to 3-0, went 2-for-4 with two RBIs and two runs. A solo blast in the fourth frame from Franks, who went 2-for-5 with two RBIs and two runs, extended the lead to 4-2 before the Manatees answered with a four-run fifth.
Fitzgerald went 2-for-4 with three RBIs, two runs and a walk, and Polcovich finished 3-for-5 with three runs and an RBI. Mikey Madej added a 2-for-4 effort with a run scored and Will Moriarty capped the multi-hit efforts with a 2-for-4 effort with an RBI and run.
"From top to bottom it was a good day through the entire lineup," Martin said. "Not one person that stepped to the plate didn't contribute."
Earning the win was Connor Stephens, who relieved Boswell in the fifth inning and allowed just one run on three hits while striking out three. Starter Matt Boswell, who entered the day with a 2.70 ERA and a 5-2 record, struck out 10 and allowed five runs on five hits and two walks in the no-decision.
"He was erratic and didn't have much secondary stuff and was missing arm-side high," Martin said of Boswell. "Connor came in and, I know he gave up a home run, but he settled in and gave us a chance and the bats came through."