FORT MYERS – Columbus expects to be in close games even before they happen.
The Explorers, who have thrived all season when the pressure is at its highest, did so again Friday by outlasting Tampa Alonso for a 2-1 victory that sent them to the state championship round for the second year in a row.
Columbus (21-9) will vie for its second state championship in a row and third overall when it takes on Douglas in the Class 9A title game Saturday at 4:05 p.m. at jetBlue Park.
It will be the first matchup between Miami-Dade and Broward County teams in a state baseball final since 2010 when Pembroke Pines Flanagan beat Hialeah American. It’s the fourth such matchup in a final in the tournament’s history.
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"We talked about it all week and we said we figured we’d be in a 1-0 or 2-1 type of game," Columbus coach Joe Weber said. "We’re in Florida and in Class 9A so everyone is going to be good."
Columbus improved to 6-1 in one-run games.
Overall, 16 of the Explorers’ 30 games this season have been decided by three runs or less. But their record in games decided by two runs is 3-3 and in three-run games, they’re 0-3.
On Saturday, Columbus will play a Douglas squad that has won six of its past seven games by a one-run margin.
"We’re not a team that’s built to score a lot of runs," Weber said. "We win on pitching and defense."
Columbus ace Andy Arguelles, an FIU signee, and Alonso ace Jordan Butler, a University of Florida signee, each put up plenty of zeroes on the scoreboard as each has most of this season.
But it was Arguelles who had the far more reliable defense Friday.
The Explorers turned three double plays, all at crucial times, to bail out Arguelles, who was effective but labored in the grueling heat. Arguelles’ one run was unearned, and he gave up only two hits, but he walked six and struck out two.
"That was one of the hottest games we’ve played in a while," Arguelles said. "As I got tired, I felt like I needed to get ahead more [in counts]. Sometimes I didn’t, but when I did it definitely helped. We weren’t going to let being in the hot sun derail our goal of winning a state championship."
Columbus took advantage of much sloppier defense on Alonso’s side.
The Ravens committed five errors, three of which led to the Explorers’ scoring output.
The Explorers scored their first run in the second inning with two outs when a bouncing ball took a hop and caromed off second baseman Jared DeSantolo and rolled into shallow right field, allowing J.C. Carulla to score from second base.
With the game tied at 1, Mike Navarette reached base to lead off the seventh inning after Alonso shortstop Jose Ciccarello bobbled a bouncing ball hit to him. Moments later, Navarette raced to second base when Butler fired a pickoff attempt into foul ground on the first base side.
Columbus then executed two perfect bunts in succession to take the lead for good.
After second baseman Matt Alfonso sacrificed Navarette to third, Mike Fernandez bunted the ball toward the mound and Alfonso scored after getting a great jump toward the plate even before the pitch was thrown.
The play brought some redemption for Fernandez, who made his own error in the bottom of the sixth that allowed Alonso to tie the game. Fernandez overthrew first base on a grounder by Peyton Woble. Instead of ending the inning with a 1-0 lead, Alonso right fielder Mike Paule scored the tying run.
"I felt like once Mike got to third base, everything was made for that moment," Fernandez said. "I messed up, but I didn’t drag myself down. The bunt was something we practice a lot, but I felt comfortable and just put it down and it was perfect."
COL 100 000 1 – 2 4 1
ALO 000 001 0 – 1 2 5
WP: Andy Arguelles (14-1). LP: Jordan Butler (11-1).