The pressure is off. That means the players may be on.
Ridgewood coach Larry Beets and Tarpon Springs coach Scott Decatur said some of the best baseball of the season could be played today when their teams meet at 7:30 p.m. at Ridgewood High School for the Class 5A, District 8 championship.
While the winner gets a trophy and home-field advantage for at least the first round of the regional playoffs, both teams are assured continued post-season play since the first- and second-place district teams advance. That may take away some of the jitters.
"We'll be loose and really relaxed," Beets said, "though we do seem to play better if it's do-or-die."
Though that will not be the case, there are some good story lines to this game that should provide motivation for both sides.
For Ridgewood (23-6), it's time for a little payback. The Rams are 2-10 against Tarpon Springs in the '90s, and until the teams split their two regular-season games this year, Ridgewood hadn't beaten the Spongers since 1991.
That was the same year the Rams won their last district title. And that's why Beets said he is confident the game will not be anticlimactic after Wednesday night's emotional 7-2 semifinal victory over Land O'Lakes.
"They want that trophy in the trophy case," Beets said, "and the banner in the gym."
For Tarpon Springs (19-9), it's about tradition. This will be the Spongers' sixth consecutive district championship game. They are 3-2.
"It counts that the kids have been there before," Decatur said.
The Spongers play with the composure of a veteran team. They beat Sickles 1-0 in the first round when Trevor Rhodes broke up a perfect game with a solo home run in the fifth.
In the semifinals, Tarpon Springs fell behind Springstead 2-0 in the first inning. But Rhodes homered in the bottom half of the inning to tie the game, and pitcher Pat Hudspeth no-hit the Eagles the rest of the way in a 5-2 win.
Defensively, Tarpon Springs has been solid. Grant Abrams is almost automatic at shortstop, handling six chances flawlessly against Springstead.
So it is curious that Decatur said he is considering pitching Abrams against Ridgewood. The right-hander (2-0, five saves) is usually the closer. But the coach said he is "so dominating" on the mound, it's worth sacrificing some defense.
Other mound options include Steve Richie (4-0), who tossed a three-hitter in the Sickes game; leftfielder Anthony Thran (0-1), who has only pitched eight innings this season; and Steve Patterson (6-3), who just got the cast off a broken thumb he sustained late in the season and may be available.
"I'll make my decision (Thursday night)," Decatur said.
Justin Case (4-3) will start for Ridgewood. Beets said the right-hander will go about three or four innings and then give way to lefty Tommy MacLane (6-2, two saves).
"We're going to have to execute and not make mistakes," Decatur said. "If you give an opening to a team like that, it will be hard to win."
That's not pressure, that's a fact.
WHO: Tarpon Springs (19-9) vs. Ridgewood (23-6).
WHEN: 7:30 tonight.
WHERE: Ridgewood High School.
WHAT TO WATCH: The righty-lefty combination of Ridgewood pitchers Justin Case (4-3) and Tommy MacLane (6-2). Ridgewood coach Larry Beets said Case will start and go three or four innings before giving way. Beets said this is also a good tryout in a pressure situation for Case, who could be Ridgewood's ace next season. "We're preparing him to step up and be the guy next year to win on Tuesdays," Beets said. Play at shortstop could be memorable. Tarpon Springs has Grant Abrams, who is smooth and steady. If he is not pitching, he will match up well with Ridgewood star Mike Rabelo. Beets on Tarpon Springs: "They come to battle you. When they get behind, they're going to come back." Tarpon Springs coach Scott Decatur on Ridgewood: "It's a Larry Beets-coached team, which means they are fundamentally sound. So we can't miss signs and make base-running mistakes. We have to limit our errors."