American Heritage (Plantation, Fla.) had one of the most talented baseball teams in the country this season, with two of its players going in the major league draft and 10 players signed to Division I colleges.
The Patriots went 24-4 and managed to beat the eventual Florida 9A, 8A, 4A, and 3A champions, the Louisiana Division I champion and the Arizona 6A champion and runner-up.
The one thing American Heritage didn’t do is win its own state title, and that has a lot to do with its state’s single-elimination playoff system. In a 6A regional final, the Patriots lost 2-0 to Merritt Island and its star right-hander, Mason Denaburg, who was drafted No. 27 overall a month later by the Washington Nationals.
“I hope eventually it (Florida’s playoff system) changes,” said American Heritage third baseman Triston Casas, who was also drafted in the first round. “I kind of like the system they have in Mississippi and Georgia, where they have a series. That determines who the better team is, if we’re really determining a state champion. Obviously, (Denaburg) came to pitch that day and I tip my cap to him.”
The NCAA baseball champions and every level of pro baseball champion is determined by a playoff series, but in most states, a state high school championship often comes down to one game.
That’s great for teams with one really good pitcher, but those who build a good record over the season using a deep roster that includes several solid starters suddenly find they’re playing a different game in the playoffs.
Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Rhode Island are the only states that determine their state championship in a best-of-three series. Two California sections (the state has no overall champion), plus Colorado, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah all have a double-elimination state tournament, but in the rest of the states, the state championship can be determined by a single bad hop or one sublime pitching performance.
Calvary Christian (Clearwater, Fla.) had won 60 games in a row over the past two seasons, but the Warriors’ first loss this year came in the state 4A championship, where it fell 5-1 to Calvary Christian Academy (Fort Lauderdale) when Skylar Gonzalez threw a four-hitter.
“I’ll bet if you polled most coaches in the state, they would vote for a double-elimination format,” Calvary Christian coach Greg Olsen said. “There’s a lot of excitement with the one-game playoff system and there’s a lot of buildup going into that game, almost like a football game. The downside is, over the years, there are a lot of really talented teams that didn’t win their classifications because they had one bad day or were outplayed by somebody on one day.”
Texas has a single-game state championship, but earlier in the playoffs coaches can either agree on or flip a coin to decide to have a three-game or single-game format. Forrest Whitley is one of the top prospects in the minors, but two years ago, when he was the ace right-hander for Alamo Heights (San Antonio), the Mules only had to play one series in the playoffs to get to the state championship game.
Whitley was the winning pitcher in six of his team’s final eight games. He was unavailable to pitch in the championship and the Mules finished as the state runner-up.
Valley Christian (San Jose) won the Central Coast Section this past season in a single-elimination tournament. There is talk of California possibly having a full state championship by 2020. If that happens, Valley Christian coach John Diatte would like to see it done with either a double-elimination or three-game format.
“If we’re going to do something similar to how we do with football, taking the top two teams and playing on a weekend, obviously, a three-game series would be best at defining that champion,” Diatte said. “If they take four teams, at that level, I hope they would do a double-elimination tournament over a week. I wouldn’t be surprised if they would do just two single games, though.”
There are plenty of reasons why double-elimination or three-game playoff series make more sense. Baseball is meant to be played every day or every other day and hitters can easily get rusty when they don’t face live pitching for several days. One dominant pitcher having a great day means too much in a one-game series, whereas team depth comes to play over a three-game series. Then, there’s the fluky factor that is more isolated in baseball.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Pittsburgh Steelers would never lose to a college team, but two years ago, Division II Tampa beat the Philadelphia Phillies during Spring Training.
There are practical reasons why a lot of states don’t use double-elimination or three-game playoff state tournaments. In the Midwest and Northeast this spring, cold and wet weather made it difficult for teams to play full schedules and adding more games to the mix would push the playoffs into late June, when travel baseball is in full swing.
Ultimately, it comes down to preference. Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro, Md.), the No. 1-ranked team in the Super 25, doesn’t play for a state title, but the Crusaders are accustomed to single-elimination tournaments during the season.
“Something that we’ve always enjoyed is the single-elimination aspect,” Riverdale Baptist coach Ryan Terrill said. “You have to show up and be ready to play and work your way through the winner’s bracket. I think that’s something our program has always thrived on. That one-game format where you have to win to advance ups the intensity, the level of focus and I think the kids enjoy that.”