By JOSH HYBER
NICEVILLE — Northwest Florida State began conference play 0-6 last season and still managed to secure a spot in the Region 8 playoffs.
It seems this year the Raiders will have a bit more breathing room.
In a five-day stretch this week, the Raiders began 2017 conference play by taking three-of-four games from No. 4-ranked Gulf Coast State College, including a split of a Saturday doubleheader.
In the night cap, with Northwest Florida State having lost the opener 2-1, Raiders sophomore Landon Crowder came through with — at least until this point — the team's biggest hit of the season. With Joe Guidry on second with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, Crowder crushed a single up the middle to give the Raiders a 2-1 extra-inning victory.
With the series win, Northwest Florida State (20-6, 2-2) secured itself a spot in front of Gulf Coast (19-8, 3-1) in the panhandle conference standings.
"(Taking three of four to start conference play) is huge. It's huge. It gives us a lot of momentum," Crowder said. "You always want to start strong because you know you're going to dip. You know there's going to be some struggles because its a hard conference and a tough league. Getting a good start is good, but especially getting a good start against a really, really tough opponent too. Gulf Coast always has a strong team, so I'm really proud of our guys."
Sophomore Eric Orze — who threw 112 pitches in an eight-inning gem on Tuesday in the Raiders' victory over the Commodores — came back on three days rest and pitched brilliantly in Saturday's nightcap. The right-hander pitched six innings, allowing just one run on four hits.
"We've got a couple of pitchers suspended so we really didn't even know who was going to start until the game," Martin said. "He said he felt good enough. He had a 60-pitch limit today and dang it, he got into the sixth inning with that today. That was a big deal."
The teams traded runs in the fourth inning — the Commodores striking on a solo home run from Alec Wisely and the Raiders on a Hunter Oliver-RBI single — to send the game to extras. In the top of the eighth, Raiders pitcher John Barr loaded the bases but struck out Commodores shortstop Jordan Tylski on a 2-2 pitch to end the threat.
That set the table for Crowder's heroics.
With Raiders centerfielder Joe Guidry on second after singling and advancing on a ball in the dirt, Crowder jumped on a fastball away.
Said Crowder, "I got up there and thought, 'Hey, maybe I can find a hole.'"
"As soon as I hit it I thought all it has to do is get by the pitcher," Crowder said. "That was my mindset. As soon as it got by the pitcher I knew it. I knew it was going to get through."
Said Northwest Florida State manager Doug Martin, "Landon's been a little snake-bitten. He's been hitting the ball well but they've been hit right at people.
"But tonight that one found a way to make it in there."
The Raiders prize for taking three-of-four from the country's No. 4 team: No. 1-ranked Chipola, who the Raiders will travel to face on March 21 and 23 before returning home for a doubleheader against the Indians on March 25.
"It's a great start (to conference play), but that's all it is, a start," Martin said. "There's so much more baseball to be played. We've got the bye week coming up so we're going to give the guys a few days off. It's just one series and we've got a long way to go. You know, we started this thing 0-6 last year and we actually made the playoffs, but I'd rather be where we're at now than where we were last year.
"It was a real good series for us. I'm proud of our kids."
In the opener, the Raiders had 11 hits, but overcome three errors and failing to score after a four-run first.
"You know what? They beat us. And they deserved to win," Martin said after the opener. "We made too many mistakes defensively."
Raiders starting pitcher Cameron Sanders struggled early. The right-handed sophomore faced 10 batters and was pulled for Jaylen Whitehead before recording an out in the second. Four Raiders pitchers combined to allow 13 hits, and the home team scored just one run after the first inning.
Gulf Coast State scored three times in the top for the first, benefitting from three consecutive doubles to start the game that gave the visitors a 2-0 lead.
After Jaylen Whitehead struck out two, the inning was prolonged when Crowder bobbled a ground ball that allowed Commodores Eli Taylor to reach first safely. Wisely scored on the play to make it 3-0.
But the home team responded.
Second baseball Daino Deas said "I can do this too" with a leadoff double of his own to start the bottom half of the frame. Two batters later, Raiders catcher Hunter Oliver shot one back up the middle to score Deas. With first baseman Ross Goforth on first, right fielder Gabe Austin caught ahold of one and crushed a three-run homer over the left-field fence to give the Raiders a 4-3 lead.
"We responded well to their top of the inning and had a lot of quality at bats," Martin said. "The game kind of settled in."
But then came a decision Martin would regret: The coach put in freshman right-hander Breonn Pooler to face Tylski. The shortstop singled to score Wisely to tie the game at five. Right fielder Carnegy Calzado then doubled to clear the bases and extend the lead to 7-5.
Said Martin, "There at the end I think we tried too hard and when you do that you swing at bad pitches. We swung at a lot of pitches that were out of the zone and got ourselves out. We'll just have to learn from it and get better."