If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the 2013 baseball season, it’s patience.
You have to crawl before you can walk and walk before you can run. And if you’re Alabama State’s baseball team, you’re still not ready for the NCAA Tournament.
That will fall to more experienced hands as Jackson State and Prairie View A&M battle it out for the Southwestern Athletic Conference baseball tournament title and the NCAA berth that goes with it. If you looked at the regular season, you might have thought it was Alabama State’s turn. The Hornets had beaten Prairie View in the regular season and again in the first round of the tournament and had won their regular-season head-to-head matchup with Jackson State.
But none of that matters when it’s time to pick the conference’s best team for the NCAA regional. Jackson State and Prairie View are accustomed to being in that position and know how to play when the stakes are higher.
Alabama State does not.
One game away from the SWAC tournament championship game, the Hornets fell flat. Suddenly, their offense couldn’t produce. Suddenly, it was the other team confidently making the plays while the Hornets looked around in disbelief that they had reached the semifinals unbeaten.
Saturday’s loss to Prairie View was more of the same. Alabama State took a 2-0 lead on a two-run hit by Waldyvan Estrada, then shut down the offense for the day. Prairie View rallied with a two-run home run in the bottom half of the inning and never looked back. The Panthers erased a 3-2 Hornet lead a couple of innings later with a two-out rally in the seventh, scoring three runs for a 5-3 lead, then pulled away with three more in the eighth.
Baseball is a game of confidence. With apologies to Prairie View, there are few in this world that believe the Panthers (27-26) can stay on the field with the Hornets when you match talent against talent, but it takes more than just talent to advance when the stakes are raised.
Alabama State isn’t ready to be counted among that group yet. So the Hornets will have to wait until 2014 and think about what could have — and should have — been. Sometimes, you can be the champion because you’re simply that much better than everyone else and all those intangibles like pressure never enter the picture. Sometimes, you have to raise your level of play to be a champion.
That’s the next step for the 2014 Hornets.