Welcome to the real baseball season. Many high school baseball coaches will say that the regular season is just a warm-up for now, the opening of the postseason. And as district tournaments commence this week, records mean little. In fact, the seeds teams jockey for all season don't mean much more. The bottom line is that this is when teams need to win games to live out their postseason dreams. The top story lines heading into the district tournaments:
1. Can Jesuit take the next step?
The Tigers could make the case for having the best baseball program in the county. But their recent postseason resume leaves much to be desired.
They haven't advanced to the state tournament since 2006, and last season, when Jesuit was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the nation for most of the year, ended with a 5A region semifinal loss to Plant.
This year, Jesuit (22-2) has dominated its competition in Class 4A and a staff ERA of 1.87 says a lot about its arms, anchored by left-handed ace Daniel Gibson.
This year's lineup doesn't have the pop of the past (20 homers compared to 36 last year), but that might not be a bad thing.
"I think we have a formula," coach Richie Warren said. "Everybody wants to score a bunch of runs, but when you're in 4A and you start running into a bunch of teams, we're going to have to be able to bunt, hit-and-run and make some defensive plays. That's what's going to make the difference of whether we're going to be able to make a run or not."
2. Who can win Class 6A, District 8?
The quick answer is anyone. This district has all the ingredients to be turned upside down — a small district with top-to-bottom competition.
Factor in a Plant team (15-9) gaining confidence after advancing to the Saladino final, and this district, arguably the most competitive in the state, is wide open.
Still, top-seeded Brandon (18-6) and No. 2 seed Alonso (20-4) have to be the favorites given their postseason experience. The Ravens, winners of 12 straight and the ones who showed pitching depth in winning the Saladino, will be tough.
3. Will Gaither's district dominance continue?
The Cowboys (19-3) went undefeated (12-0) through district play and have been winning with their bats. Their potent, top-to-bottom lineup averages nearly 10 runs a game. But the real key to Gaither's success has been its defense.
Before committing six errors in a Saladino Tournament quarterfinals loss to Brandon, the Cowboys averaged less than an error a game.
"We have the kind of pitchers that make you hit the ball, so we have to play defense behind them," coach Frank Permuy said. "We haven't had a complete game all year, and we might not have one all year. I'm fine with that though."
District rival King, which has won four of six (those two losses coming by one run) likely will present the Cowboys with their biggest challenge.
4. What to make of Tampa Catholic?
The Jekyll and Hyde of Hillsborough County, the Crusaders (15-8) have been up and down this year.
Once the county's No. 1 team, they head into the regular-season finale against Cambridge having lost four straight, including stinging losses to rivals Jesuit and CCC.
They're still the No. 1 seed in Class 3A-10, but they've lacked consistency over the past month. They lost three games in the Dunedin tournament, went to Orlando and took the Catholic Challenge only to flat-line to close the regular season.
Trust that coach Pat Russo will have the Crusaders ready to play this week, but, really, how far can their patchwork pitching go?
Of late, walks have killed them (19 in the losses to Jesuit and CCC), prompting TC to fall behind early. And it is a team that plays better when it's ahead than when it's behind.
5. Will Cambridge be challenged?
Not until the region final, when the Lancers (17-4) will be challenged by Lake Worth Trinity Christian, a team they beat in last year's Class A state semifinal. Still, Cambridge appears well on its way to its third straight state tournament berth.
And this year's team might be more ready for the stretch run than its predecessors. Coach Rick Shears has stacked the schedule, adding a trip to Class 6A Apopka as well as draft factory Bradenton IMG Academy.
Regardless of classification, pitcher Peter Miller (4-0, one save, 0.51 ERA, 53 strikeouts in 271/3 innings), an FSU recruit, is the real deal.