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Pirates face similar opponent

Palatka will challenge the District 6 champions with strong starting pitching, solid defense and speed on the basepaths.

By JAMAL THALJI

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 2001


DADE CITY -- When Palatka and Pasco take the field tonight at 7:30 in the opening round of the Class 4A playoffs at Death Valley, it will be a sight Lee Cruz never thought he'd see.

But he'll be glad he did.

"I was surprised," said Pasco's junior shortstop. "I've never been this far, ever. I always wanted to get past districts, at least."

But now that the Pirates have, their new goal is a repeat of the 1997 season: a trip to Legends Field in Tampa and the state baseball finals.

But first, Class 4A, District 6 champion Pasco must win its first post-season game since the glory days of '97.

To do so, the Pirates (22-7) must defeat a Panthers team that is similar to them in many ways.

Like its opponent, Palatka (21-8) brings a strong lineup to the plate, two aces to the mound and speed on defense to the basepaths. The Panthers had won seven consecutive games until losing to Gainesville Eastside in Friday night's 4A-5 final.

Right-hander Marion Knowles (6-2) will start for Palatka. A power pitcher whose fastball has touched 85 miles per hour, Knowles has signed with the University of North Florida. He also leads the team at the plate, batting .461.

First baseman Alex Black is the team's RBI leader with 30, and shortstop/second baseman Bryan Helms is batting .360. Coach Jerome Wilkerson wants to see his team rebound at the plate tonight, because Palatka's bats slumped toward the end of the regular season.

"I think (Knowles) has to pitch a good game (to win)," Wilkerson said. "But we need to hit the ball better, too. We were held to one hit in our last loss and five in the game before that.

"In a big game like this you want to hit, play good defense and not make any mistakes."

Those are the same qualities Pasco will rely on tonight, Cruz said.

"If they pitch like they are right now, we're going to have a good chance," he said.

"Because we have good defense and we're hitting the ball pretty good so far."

But of all the Panthers' attributes that concern him, Pirates coach Ricky Giles is especially keen on keeping their best runners off the bases. Centerfielder Thadius Crawford, who has 25 stolen bases this season, hasn't been picked off since last year.

"We can't let them run on us," Giles said.

"If they run on us, we'll be in trouble."

Giles said his lineup has to put the ball in play and force the other team to do the work to help out No. 1 starter Jesse Wilson (7-1).

The team's other No. 1 pitcher, Trey Evans, will be held in reserve.

"If we can move the ball and make the other guys make plays, that will be the key," he said. "But we have to keep them off the bases. We can't afford to walk them. That's why I figure Jesse has better control than the other guys. He can slow them down."

Giles said the team's success down the stretch -- overcoming a .500 start, securing the 4A-6 district crown and sweeping Sunshine Athletic Conference champion Land O'Lakes -- surprised even him. But no more.

"I thought it was a little bit of a surprise," he said. "We got in a situation where we had to come back halfway through the season, and they played solid down the stretch. That's what we told them in the beginning of the season, that they would have to hang on if they wanted to go somewhere.

"We lost some close ones, and the kids knew they were better than that. At the end, they came back and played together and that's what we've got to do now."

Cruz's brothers, Tito and Alex, both played on the '97 team that went to state. Lee says this year it's his turn.

"Tito and Alex experienced it back in '97," Cruz said.

"I want to experience it. I want to have something to brag about this time."

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