How did these Tigers get here?
If you follow Corsicana's baseball program you know Heath Autrey has put incredibly talented teams on the field every year since he took over the program eight years ago, teams good enough to make the kind of run the 2019 Tigers have made to get them to the Class 5A Region II Semifinals.
But this team is special and that's why these Tigers are playing Frisco Lone Star in a best-of-three series at Dallas Baptist this week stamping their place as one of the best in Texas and the first Autrey to advance this far in the playoffs.
You need some luck and some breaks to get this far, but at the end of the day the big reason these kids are here comes back to the very things Autrey and his program preach every day.
It's the little things that win big games, and Autrey takes the baseball truth a step further. His kids know better than anyone that:
"There are no little things in baseball," Autrey always says. "Everything is a big thing."
"Our defense has been a big part of the separation," Autrey said this week as the Tigers prepared for the opening game of the Lone Star series Wednesday night. "I's been a big part of our season."
The Tigers don't just play clean baseball. They make plays that take away hits and break the other guys heart, and they've done that all year.
The infield was going to be stingy, and Autrey made it exceptional when he moved one of his best gloves this year, sending senior Landon Pritchett from the the middle of the infield to third base and using Lane Fuentes at short and freshman Mikie Luevano.
."Having a middle infielder playing third and having Mikie and Lane up the middle made our infield better," he said. "And we have Caydon Rash (a sophomore) catching, and he's a real strong catcher and Micah Burke and Cade Johnson playing center field, and that makes us real strong up the middle.
"We've got kids who make plays and we've got speed in the infield and speed in the outfield," he said.
Pritchett was a solid, gold-glove type middle infielder, and lights out at third, and it would be difficult to find two better gloves than Luevano and Fuentes, who have both been spectacular this season and especially in the playoffs, and you couldn't ask for a better first baseman than Ty Nolen, who has been there every day for four years.
Blake Hoffman is as fast as anyone in left field and plays with a fire, and Burke is not only the ace of the staff on the mound, but he plays center with speed and priceless baseball instincts. When he pitches, Cade Johnson has filled in and made big plays. Devan Lindsey, who is having a season everyone dreams of having, runs down everything in right field.
"This is one of the best defensive teams we've had in my eight years here," Autrey said. "We've had some real good ones, and this one is one of the best."
In the late innings of Game 3 Saturday against Joshua, Lindsey ran a mile to take away a double in right and Luevano and Fuentes made plays that Joshua won't forget. In one inning Fuentes made a remarkable back-handed play on a sizzling grounder to take away a hit, and Luevano made a play at second, snaring a laser one-hopper with a back-hand play.
Then in the sixth with the winning run at second and no one out Fuentes made a diving catch to steal a liner and immediately threw to a heads-up Luevano at second for the best double play of the postseason to kill the the threat.
The Tigers scored in the seventh when Burke hit a two-strike, two-out double and Luevano drove him home with his second clutch RBI hit of the game to give the Tigers a 4-3 lead that sent them to the Region Semifinals.
Clutch hitting has been a big part of this run.
"We've had a knack of getting big hits with runners in scoring position at the right time," Autrey said. "We've come up with big hits when we' had to have them, and we've done it with different guys."
The Tigers have not only had clutch hits, they've had them in bunches with the entire lineup catching fire. The came back and beat Lindale 9-5 to win the Area round playoff with an eight-run sixth inning, and then in their next game they produced a nine-run inning to take a 12-2 lead in Game 1 against Joshua.
And how about Lindsey, who belted home runs in the Lindale win and in Game 3 against Joshua on Saturday that ignited the Tigers, who were down 2-1 when his shot to left knotted things at 2-2.
Lindsey his hitting .356 for the season, but he has been a monster in the postseason, batting .476 (10-for-21) with two homers and eight RBIs in the six biggest games of the season.
Burke, who is hitting .340, has come through, too. He's batting .450 (9-for-20) in the postseason and has had some of the most dramatic hits in the playoffs.
Luevano, whose three-run triple ignited tied things at 5-5 and the Tigers' comeback against Lindale, drove in Burke with a run in the fifth and brought home Burke with the winning run in the seventh Saturday.
He's hitting .344 for the year with 16 RBIs and a team-leading 28 runs, and he's batting .444 (8-for-18) with a .600 on-base-percentage in the playoffs. He has driven in seven runs and scored seven runs in the six playoff game.
The Tigers are hitting .348 as a team in the playoffs.
Fuentes is hitting .429 (3-for-7) and senior Francisco Orzco has come off the bench and come through, going 2-for-3 with an RBI. He also pitched an inning in relief.
No one has been bigger at the plate all year than sophomore Hunter Autrey, who has emerged as a big bat in the middle of the Tigers' lineup.
"Hunter has hit all his life," coach Autrey said of his son, "and he's done a real good job this year."
Hunter Autrey leads the team in the production, driving in 24 runs this season. He hit .368 despite opponents trying to pitch around him, and he's smart enough to take the walk when it's there and has a .468 on-base-percentage and a .915 OPS for the year.
He's even better in the postseason, where he's hitting a mind-boggling .500 against tough pitching, going 8-for-16 while driving driven in six runs in six games. He has .652 on-base-percentage and 1.215 OPS in the playoffs.
Autrey, Luevano and Rash, who has a .429 on-base-percentage for the season, are part of the Tigers' Young Guns group that includes sophomore Kolby Kinkade, who has been Corsicana's best pitcher in the playoffs.
Those four have been a huge part of this year's success story.
Kinkade was good in the regular season, and he has been spectacular in the playoffs, pitching his best game in a six-inning two-hit performance to nail down the bi-district title with an 11-2 win over North Forney with a career-high 10 strikeouts.
Kinkade got the win with three scoreless innings against Lindale, pitched three more shutout innings to get the save in the 12-11 win over Joshua, and then pitched a beauty Saturday, using every one of the 76 pitches he had left for the week in a three-hit, five-inning start against Joshua in which he mowed down the final 10 batters he faces.
He is 7-2 with a 2.01 ERA for the season and 2-0 with a save and a dazzling 0.84 ERA in the playoffs with 16 strikeouts in 16 2/3 innings.
The Tigers have a unique mix with the Young Guns and three seniors who are four-year starters. Nolen, Burke and Lindsey have been playing at Price Field forever, and Burke and Lindsey have been the keys to a pitching staff that had to face some of the best pitching in Texas in the toughest 5A district in the state.
Burke is 8-3 for the season with a 1.90 ERA and Lindsey is 3-1 with three saves, and both have a win in the playoffs. Luevano also pitched and got the win in the 12-11 victory over Joshua. He started and went 3 2/3 innings allowing three hits and one earned run. More importantly, He gave Autrey and the pitching staff priceless innings in a series where both teams needed every pitcher -- and pitch -- to survive.
The mix of young and old that includes Hoffman, the Tigers' incredible quarterback who joined the team last year as a junior and has had a tremendous impact, and Pritchett, a three-year starter who came over from a junior Mildred as a sophomore, is part of this magical run for a team that has bonded and is as close as any in Texas.
They got here together and that's a big reason that got here at all.
"This is a special group," Autrey said.