Paul Aiken / Staff Photographer
Paul Aiken / Staff Photographer
The way the playoffs have gone for the Erie baseball team, you can’t put a pin on what kind of game the Tigers are going to be involved in.
What you can assume is that they’re going to be in it at the end of the game, and that’s why head coach Harold Simmons said this year’s team is just as likely to walk away with the Class 4A state title as any of the remaining four squads.
Taking the early part of this week pretty easy with his team after two Saturday games that consisted of a 20-16 win and a 6-5, 12-inning marathon, Simmons lauded the Tigers for being as tough as any team he’s had in his eight years.
“For our guys, we feel like we’re mentally and physically tougher than a lot of teams out there and I think we proved that on Saturday,” Simmons said after Wednesday’s practice at EHS. “We had that toughness all year, but we’ve really grown into it more. This is a tough group, and I can get on them hard knowing they’ll come back.
“Last year, we really thought we had a chance to win it all. We keep seeing our teams show us coaches they believe they can be better than that last year. The guys that have come before have kind of put our current guys in a place where they believe they belong.”
Erie (16-8) has won every which way in postseason play in 2016. In districts, the Tigers cruised with all three facets of the game coming together; once they reached the double-elimination state tournament, they couldn’t avoid being a little worse for wear.
Here they are, however, standing as a final four team for the first time in 4A. The others? Valor Christian (Erie’s Friday opponent at All-Star Park, noon), Pueblo West and Windsor — all 20-4.
“We’re kind of the underdogs and people didn’t really think we would be able to do much of anything, and that’s really pushing us so far,” said senior Josh Crites, who is batting .402 this season. “It’s giving us the drive we need.
“I think we’ll be able to play a little looser than those other teams, and that maybe they’ll take us a little lighter looking at our record. That’s fine by us. Mountain View beat us up pretty good earlier in the year and we just beat them, too.”
Crites would be the first to admit that this year’s team is doing what last year’s 18-5 squad was supposed to do. With Kyle Leahy pitching superb and Zane Begano emerging as the No. 2 pitcher in 2015, EHS was primed to get to the second weekend but instead lost a pair of one-run games to bow out of the tournament.
With some question marks in the area of pitching heading into this season, the Tigers have received ample work from Crites, Victor Villa and Ruben Portillo. Portillo, in fact, has emerged as the ace going 6-1 with three saves and a 1.44 earned-run average after just 7.1 innings of varsity experience coming in.
“Our program really just wanted to show what we were made of this year,” said Portillo, also a senior. “For me, bullpen and offseason work was so important. But I’ve had some great defense behind me, too. I’m confident in our staff with Victor and Josh right there.”
Portillo will likely see action on the mound Friday against Valor — a rematch of an April 1 game at VCHS that went the way of the Eagles, 13-3. He did not pitch in that game, which may give the Tigers another card up their sleeve when it comes to upending another solid team.
“We are going to be ready this time,” Crites said.