SEFFNER — Seffner Christian baseball coach Jim Self rolled the dice Tuesday.
In preparing for the Crusaders' 1A region quarterfinal, Self scrolled through his mental Rolodex and decided the team's No. 3 pitcher would start the team's biggest game of the season. It was win and keep playing or lose and go home.
"I knew it was somewhat of a gamble," Self said. "But it was time for some others to step up."
Self hoped to save his two top starters for a potential matchup against Cambridge in the region semifinals. But then Bayshore Christian, a team the Crusaders thumped 11-2 earlier in the season, built a 7-1 sixth-inning lead Tuesday, and things weren't looking so good.
"We have a comfort level with (our top two starters) on the mound," Self said. "We had to get out of that."
And what better time than Tuesday. The Crusaders mounted a stirring rally, putting runners on second and third with two outs in the seventh and trailing by one.
Robert Bull fell behind in the count 0-2, but he battled back and eventually lined the game-winning hit up the middle to send the Crusaders into the second round of the playoffs today against Cambridge.
The 8-7 win made school history: It was the program's first playoff victory since joining the Florida High School Athletics Association.
"I was nervous, but at the same time knew we could do it all along," cleanup hitter Ben Cock said. "It took us a little to get going, but we got rolling toward the end."
Bull said he was so caught up in the dramatic moment that he wasn't even aware the Crusaders were a strike away from seeing their season end.
"I honestly don't remember the count," Bull said. "I just knew I didn't want to make the last out and end this."
Cock, who was intentionally walked before Bull's big hit, said he had all faith in the world in his team and Bull.
"When I went up (to the plate), Robert said, 'Don't walk,' " Cock said. "But then he smiled, so I knew he was kidding. Then he just came up so big."
For the most part, the Crusaders' bats were quiet through the first five innings. But once the rally began — Seffner Christian scored three in the sixth before adding four in the seventh — Self said he saw his team begin to believe in itself.
"I hate to say it, but sometimes we don't think we can win unless our top two pitchers are on the mound," he said. "I challenged them today and when we got things started in the sixth, you could see them in the dugout become a different team."
And Self believes the Crusaders' burgeoning confidence stems from a demanding schedule. Seffner Christian went 16-7 during the regular season, but the so-so record can be attributed to playing the likes of Tampa Prep, Bishop McLaughlin and Canterbury.
"I wanted to play the toughest schedule we could," Self said. "These kids have been battle tested."
That will be on the line again tonight when the Crusaders venture into uncharted territory — the second round of the playoffs. Seffner Christian will have its hands full today at 4 p.m. against a visiting Cambridge team that beat the Crusaders 13-3 on April 14.
"We know they have a good team, and we know who they'll pitch," Self said. "But the win (Tuesday), I think, gave our team some serious confidence and was a true momentum builder."