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Pirates about to produce answers

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002

CRYSTAL RIVER -- Everybody around here wants the answer. Teachers. Police officers. Parents. Heck, even me.

Is Crystal River's baseball team for real?

Soon, we shall know the truth. The playoffs begin Tuesday, so very soon it should be clear whether the Pirates, ranked third in the state poll, are worthy of the hype or just another team that beat the locals but couldn't hang with the big boys.

Crystal River is 27-3 and went unbeaten against Gulf Coast Athletic Conference and Class 3A, District 6 competition. The Pirates hit about .400 and have a 1.40 ERA.

But against Gainesville Buchholz, Jacksonville Trinity Christian and Pembroke Pines Flanagan, the best teams on the schedule, they went 0-3, losing 3-2, 7-6 and 8-2, respectively. Each game was at home.

Crystal River's 3-2 victory over Dunnellon in the district final gave more cause for concern. During the regular season, the Pirates beat the Tigers 11-1 and 8-0. Thursday night, they needed two runs in the seventh inning to win.

Crystal River's bats were ice cold against Buchholz, Flanagan and Dunnellon, which leads us to believe many of those .400-plus averages were inflated by 4-for-4 games against the Ocala West Ports that cluttered the schedule. It makes you wonder how the Pirates will do in the tournament, where many teams have future draft picks on the mound.

Crystal River's pitching has excelled. Jimmy Metz and William Bunch form a strong one-two combo, and Will Bleakley, Zac Cole, Ryan Starkey and Clayton Trenary have given the Pirates quality innings.

Fielding is a question mark.

In its loss to Flanagan, Crystal River made seven errors. Against Buchholz, two seventh-inning errors. Some of those mistakes can be attributed to the Pirates' field, known for producing unpredictable hops, but seven errors is too many even on concrete.

Leadership is not an issue. Coach Brent Hall was on the staff of state champion Jacksonville Arlington Country Day two years ago and is 52-9 at Crystal River. The Pirates will be prepared, but do they possess the talent to reach the final four in Tampa?

I think they do.

The lack of wins over an upper-tier opponent is scary, but it's not like Crystal River was blown out in any of its defeats. And that experience will help. The Pirates won't be shocked like in 2001, when -- after whipping everybody here -- they were crushed 16-7 by Alachua Santa Fe in the first round. What will it take to reach Tampa?

Metz, Bunch and Co. will have to be at their best. In 3A-6, teams had one or two quality hitters. In the playoffs, squads have three or more who can hurt you.

The offense must perform. All nine starters hit over .300. Seven have more than 20 RBIs. But the quality of the opponent is about to rise.

The fielding has to improve. Infield miscues played a part in each loss. The good teams make you pay for your mistakes. Crystal River knows this from experience.

Are the Pirates for real?

It's time to find out.

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