TAMPA — With 35 years of coaching the King baseball team under his belt, Jim Macaluso has long known there's no magic formula to making a winner.
And that's what has made the Lions' remarkable recent run the most rewarding of Macaluso's coaching career. About a month ago, it all clicked.
The Lions made a run into the elimination round of the Saladino Tournament, they toppled top-seeded Gaither to win the Class 5A-9 district tournament. And after a 3-2 win over Bradenton Manatee, the Lions will host Venice tonight in a Class 5A region semifinal.
"There have been times when we were favorites, but this came out of leftfield," Macaluso said. "Up until about a month ago, we were so up and down. We couldn't get over the hump."
But now the Lions (17-10), winners of five straight, are just one victory away from their first region final berth since 2003. King hasn't been to the state tournament, which is just two victories away, since the Lyndon B. Johnson administration (1964).
The Lions have already far surpassed their win total of the past two years combined (13), but this was the same team that lost to Alonso 10-0 in the second game of the year and was outscored 34-6 in two district losses to Gaither.
But when the Saladino Tournament came around, they learned in losing, falling to Steinbrenner and Alonso in one-run games.
"Those were a couple of tough losses, but after that we thought we could play with anyone," senior shortstop Josciel Veras said. "Now we know we can play with anybody in the state."
Around the same time, the pitching came together. Right-hander Devin Smith (4-1, 2.44 ERA) emerged as a No. 1 starter, and right-hander Brandon Caples (2-1, 3.46) found his way into the No. 2 spot. Former right-handed starter Karlton Knapp (.199 opponent batting average) found success in the middle relief role.
The fielding had come around, too — King had six games with four or more errors in the first 17 games, and none since. A more vocal dugout is the byproduct of that new confidence.
"We're getting really loud in the dugout now," Smith said. "The fans in the stands can hear us. We used to just clap our hands, but now, no matter what, we're always on our feet. We've been the underdogs. Everyone counted us out in the beginning. That kind of fuels us now."
All games at 7 tonight unless noted
Plant at Alonso
The Ravens (23-5) have won 15 of their last 16 games. This will be the fifth time these teams have met, with Alonso winning the last three. In the four previous meetings, Ravens pitchers have posted a 1.30 ERA against Plant (19-10).
Jesuit at Lakewood Ranch, 11 a.m. Saturday
The Tigers (26-3) rebounded from a tough district final loss to Jefferson with a 4-3 win over a good Osceola team. Their 1.68 team ERA is eye-opening. Warning for host Lakewood Ranch (13-11): Jesuit actually plays better away from home (10-0).
Tampa Catholic at Clearwater Central Catholic
The Crusaders (17-10) appeared to end their skid — they entered the region tournament having lost six of seven — with a 8-0 win at Fort Meade. They'll face a bigger obstacle in CCC (15-7), which has won three of the last four meetings. TC's pitching stability will be key, that's what got them their only victory in the series.
Plant City at Armwood
The Hawks (17-9) are playing good baseball at the right time, and they've beaten the Raiders (18-8) twice in their past three meetings, including a 7-4 win in the Class 5A-8 district final. In their three previous meetings, Armwood's Tyler Alexander is 4-for-9 with five RBIs.
Venice at King
The Lions (17-10) have won five straight and have allowed two or fewer earned runs in four of those five games. Venice (13-8) is coming off a 7-3 come-from-behind win over Gaither, in which the Indians scored four runs in the sixth inning.
Sarasota Christian at Cambridge Christian, 4 p.m.
The Lancers (22-4) beat Manatee HEAT 7-1 in the region quarterfinals, a much closer game than they've been accustomed to considering they outscored the opponents 61-10 in their previous four games. Sarasota Christian (19-6) beat Canterbury 8-3. Cambridge outscored Canterbury 36-7 in three meetings.