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Columbus Cruises To 7-4 Victory In Class 8A State Semifinal

Columbus’ Yencey Almonte celebrates after closing out the 8A state semifinal win.

All season, the Columbus Explorers have leaned on their pitchers to carry them.

But this team is far from a one-trick pony.

Behind an offense that pounded out 11 hits and kept its foot heavy on the gas pedal, Miami Columbus cruised to a 7-4 victory over Palm Beach Gardens in a FHSAA Class 8A state semifinal played at Digital Domain Park in Port St. Lucie on Saturday evening.

“I am so proud of the offense. Tonight it was all about them,” Explorers coach Joe Weber said. “They did a great job and had quality at-bats. They looked really focused.”

The Explorers (28-4) advance to the 8A championship at 7 p.m. tonight against Spruce Creek after the Hawks (27-4) defeated Timber Creek 8-0 in the other semifinal.

Columbus broke open a scoreless game for all the runs it needed with a big, five-run third inning in which it batted around the order.

The first seven batters reached base in the inning, with Laz Rivera and Frank Navarette connecting for back-to-back RBI singles on hard hits through the defense to open the scoring. Starting pitcher Mike Vinson delivered the back-breaker three batters later with a deep shot to left field for a two-run double.

Christian Garabedian followed with a sacrifice flyout that pushed across designated hitter Nelson Mompierre with the decisive fifth run.

“We wanted to be aggressive. We knew the pitcher was throwing straight fastballs so we wanted to get on him quick,” Navarette said.

The Explorers tacked on a pair of insurance runs in the fifth inning, as Vinson again came through with an RBI double to score Mompierre, before scoring on an RBI single from Garabedian.

Vinson was 3-for-4, Mompierre was 2-for-3 and Navarette was 2-for-4 with a stolen base.

“I knew I had to pick it up somehow,” Vinson said. “Some games we know the pitchers have to carry the load, but in games like this our hitting has to pick it up, and that’s why we’re here now.”

Explorers’ head coach Joe Weber discusses defensive options with his team.

The Gators (21-11) answered back with three runs in the bottom of the fourth inning, chasing Vinson from the game after only 64 pitches.

Ordinarily when a team knocks the other guys’ starter out early, it stretches the bullpen and creates greater opportunity to mount a comeback.

But against Columbus, that is not the case.

Pitching has been the team’s bread and butter all season, and it is comfortable turning to any number of live arms whenever necessary.

“That’s been our luxury all year is we’ve got five Division I guys on the mound. If one is not on a given night, we have just as much confidence in each of the others,” Weber said. “I don’t think I ever pulled Mike during an inning all season. I think he wanted to keep going, but it really wasn’t there. He certainly did it with his bat though.”

The team turned the game over to ace right-hander Yency Almonte, and the senior rose to the occasion by controlling the Gators hitters and shutting the door on a potential comeback.

“I wasn’t expecting to come in that early, but when I saw Mike get into a jam, I just started thinking I have to go in there and get Mike out of it,” Almonte said. “After the first inning, I felt pretty comfortable. I thought I can keep working the fastball and once in a while work the curveball in. I know if I get in a jam I have Mike or one of the other guys behind me.”

Almonte struck out the first batter he faced, ending the inning and stranding a pair of Gators.

After allowing a one-out triple in the bottom of the fifth that ultimately plated another run for Gardens, Almonte tightened up and shut down the final eight batters to earn the save and send Columbus back to the state championship for the first time since losing to Tampa Alonso in the 2009 Class 6A title game.

Nelson Mompierre scores the Explorers’ sixth run.

Columbus is seeking its second state title in school history, after winning the Class 6A state title in 2003.

“We’re very confident with our pitching that we can get the job done tomorrow, and I believe we’re the best team in the state,” Vinson said.

Weber appreciates the fact that his team believes in themselves and one another, but also appreciates how difficult it is just to reach this pinnacle opportunity.

“It’s a war just to get here,” Weber said. “Confidence is good; I want them to be confident, but just not cocky. I like that they think they’re the best team in the state, but I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.”

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