By Jordan Kroeger, SunCoast Sports
ENGLEWOOD — Lemon Bay has had one of the most unheard of journeys to the regional semifinals.
On May 2, the Manta Rays were supposed to play Dunbar in the District 5A-12 semifinals for a berth in the regional playoffs.
Dunbar said, ‘No thanks,’ and forfeited, rather than likely getting blown out by Lemon Bay for a third time this season.
Then, last Tuesday, Lemon Bay was supposed to face Bayshore in the Region 5A-3 quarterfinals. Instead, Bayshore was forced to forfeit the matchup because the Florida High School Athletic Association ruled that Bayshore’s pitcher exceeded the pitch count limit in the school’s district championship game against Southeast.
In a bizarre set of events, Lemon Bay won two win-or-go-home games without even taking the field.
But don’t call the Manta Rays lucky.
“Whatever it is, it worked out in our favor,” Lemon Bay coach Casey Hanrahan said. “We just have to work to take advantage of it. We have no control of what happened to other teams so that’s kind of where we’re at.
“We’ve worked on what we need to work on to get better, even though we didn’t play last week. We’re still in midseason form. We haven’t relaxed.”
Barring another unforeseen forfeit, Lemon Bay will host Lake Placid tonight in the teams’ fourth matchup this season. The Manta Rays swept the first three meetings, including the district championship game on April 27 that saw pitcher Trey Fields throw his first career no-hitter.
It’ll be Lemon Bay’s first game in 12 days.
“We’re itching to play,” Fields said.
To stay fresh, Lemon Bay spent four straight days last week playing live scrimmages of three-to-four innings in practice to simulate live-game action. There’s also been a lot of bullpen sessions, reps in the batting cage and fielding drills over the past two weeks.
You’d think the layoff couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Manta Rays considering they’re entering the playoffs red-hot, winning 10 of their last 11 games.
But Hanrahan begs to differ.
“We’ve still pressed forward and took a lot of reps and used this time as an advantage. It’s all about perspective,” Hanrahan said. “If you see it as a disadvantage then you’re going to see it as a disadvantage. But if you see it as an advantage, then it kind of changes your perspective a little bit and that’s kind of what our goal has been.”
Hanrahan and his coaching staff sat down last week before Monday’s practice and made a list of things they haven’t gone over in a while with their players. That included things such as bunt coverages, first and third base plays and signs to make sure the Manta Rays don’t make any mental mistakes at the most important point of the season.
And perhaps the most important key going into tonight — with a regional final appearance in sight — is not overlooking Lake Placid, which Lemon Bay has outscored 12-1 in its three meetings in 2017.
“We try really hard to keep our players level-headed,” Hanrahan said. “We’re not going into the game thinking this is a team we’ve already beaten. It’s a game we have to play. Anything can happen. All of them know that. We know we have to show up and play our best game every time, no matter who the opponent is. We’re doing what we can to make sure we’re sharp and ready for the game (tonight).”
Fields put it much more simply.
“We’ve just got to come in with the same approach we have been — put runs up on the board and keep them from scoring,” Fields said.
A pretty simple formula for advancing to the state’s final eight.
LAKE PLACID (10-14) AT LEMON BAY (16-9)
What: Region 5A-3 semifinals
When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
Where: Lemon Bay High School
Last meeting: May 4, Lemon Bay won, 7-0
Outlook: Lemon Bay hasn’t played a game in 12 days but it’ll face a very familiar foe in Lake Placid. The Manta Rays have already beaten the Dragons three times this season and shouldn’t have a problem winning for a fourth time to advance to the regional finals.
GULF COAST (22-7) AT CHARLOTTE (18-7)
What: Region 7A-3 semifinals
When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
Where: Charlotte High School
Last meeting: April 21, 2015 — Gulf Coast won, 3-1
Outlook: It was another dramatic victory last week for the Tarpons, who rallied in the seventh inning to defeat Class 7A No. 7 Estero in the region quarterfinals. Tonight will be an even tougher game for Charlotte as Gulf Coast comes in ranked fourth in 7A in the latest PrepZone.com state baseball poll.