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Eastern Florida Awaits State Baseball Tournament for First Time Since 2001

May 7, 2014 - Baseball at the junior college level in Florida is not a simple game. It's a game that demands excellence, endurance and get down in the dirt grit.

And over 45 games in what has been an up and down and up again season Eastern Florida's baseball team has displayed all of the above. And will need all that again as it plays its first game in the Florida College System Activities Association/NJCAA Division I Region 8 tournament at 1 p.m. Friday at Lakeland's Joker Marchant Stadium.

The Titans stand at 28-17 overall, winning their last two games in miraculous fashion on two Christian Diaz walk-off two-run home runs.

Diaz's first big hit came in an 8-6 victory over Florida College System Activities Southern Conference foe Palm Beach State in the regular-season finale, allowing the Titans to finish third in the conference with a 12-12 record. His second was more crucial, capping an Eastern Florida comeback in a 10-8 victory over St. Petersburg College in the tournament play-in game.

Now the Titans, ranked 10th in the state in the FCSAA coaches' poll, find themselves in the state tournament for the first time since 2001. They open against Gulf Coast State College.

The Commodores, from Panama City, come in at 37-12 overall, having finished second to Chipola College in the Gulf Coast Conference with a 14-6 record. Gulf Coast State is ranked fifth in Florida and 14th nationally. Chipola, of Marianna, is ranked No. 1 in Florid and second nationally and Polk State is third in Florida and 20th nationally.

"They can hit and I know they have some quality arms," Eastern Florida head coach Jeff Tam said of Gulf Coast. "We have to take care of ourselves. We can't worry about everybody else and their numbers and how good they are or were or are going to be.

"If we take it one pitch at a time like we've talked about all year we'll handle our business and that's all we can do.

"We're playing against the best of the best," Tam added. "In reality we're all 0-0 when we walk in there. If we play well and the team that gets hot will get deep in that tournament and possibly win it.

"It's a matter of making some quality pitches and putting some good at bats together like we've done all year and hopefully we're in the right place at the right time."

Eastern Florida won nine straight games early in the season and put together a four-game streak midway through the campaign. Later it suffered through losing five straight conference games and three more in the season's final week but overall winning six of its last nine in must-win match-ups against FCSAA competition.

"We don't look for anyone to be a hero," Tam said. "We just ask for the guys to do their job at their time at the plate or their time on the mound or their time defensively."

That being said there have been key contributors this season in Diaz, a walk-on who was the Southern Conference Player of the Year; shortstop J.J. Gould who was the conference Defensive Player of the Year and a second-team All-Conference selection; right-handed closer Chayce Hubbard who was the conference's Fireman of the Year; first baseman Jack Machonis, a first team All-Conference pick; and right-handed starter Dulvis Borjas, another first-team pick.

Designated hitter Alessandro Lima was a second-team pick along with catcher Austin Leeney, a mainstay for the Titans.

Diaz finished the regular season leading the Titans in nine offensive categories: hits (63), runs (40, tied with Gould), doubles (15), home runs (seven), runs batted in (51), batting average (.368), slugging percentage (.637), total bases (109) and extra base hits (27).

He was ranked 22nd nationally in triples (five); 25th in runs batted in; 48th in doubles; 49th in hits; and 50th in home runs.

Machonis is hit .357; Lima .346; Leeney .333 with a team-low 15 strikeouts; Gould .318; Nick Capra .307 with 16 strikeouts; and Francisco Cruz .303 with five home runs.

"They're getting better," Tam said of his team. "They've done a great job. The key is to not be the same player since Day 1 when you stepped in here. They haven't been. They've all made adjustments. They've all gotten better. Hopefully they continue to get better."

Leeney can speak to the improvement.

"We definitely have a better club than last year," he said. 'It's a great group. We're all really close. We joke around with each other. We know how to bring the best out of each other every day.

"Through the fall we just saw how good we were and we were like 'that's our goal, state. We know we can do it. We've just got to play good baseball the whole year.' "

Leeney will be tasked with managing the pitching staff of starters Borjas, who was 7-3 with a 3.98 earned run average; fellow righties Jesse Schullstrom (3-1, 3.06); John Piriz (4-5, 6.17 in a team-high 65.2 innings; and lefty Nick Sucarichi (3-0, 3.44).

Also, relievers and righties Hubbard (2-3, 1.89, 6 saves); Josh Smith (2-0, 4.70, two saves); Roberto Lopez (1-0, 10.00); Matt Yates, (0-0, 8.74); Jordan Lindsay (0-0, 5.40); Miguel Castellanos (0-0, 0.00) and lefty Hector Perez (0-1, 6.41).

Leeney has thrown out 15 runners attempting to steal this season for a percentage of .517. Luis Ciuro has thrown out seven for a .318 percentage.

If Eastern Florida wins its first game it will play St. Johns River State College at 10 a.m. Saturday. If it loses its first game it will play the loser of Friday's Polk State vs. Palm Beach State game at 4 p.m. Saturday.