SPRINGFIELD – Start spreading the news: The Houston Tigers are playing for the baseball state championship.
Continuing a miracle run in a fairytale season, Houston made a major statement Wednesday morning in the first final four appearance in program history. The Tigers tied a state record with six doubles, and right-handed ace Gus Durst gave up just two hits as Houston thumped West County 13-1 in the MSHSAA Class 2 semifinals at Meador Park.
Just two weeks ago, Houston had never won a playoff game. Now the Tigers are one victory away from being state champions.
“I wasn’t expecting this,” Houston coach Brent Hall said. “Once again I’m kind of speechless. We live to see another day.”
Houston (17-6) will face the defending state champion and undefeated Blair Oaks at 1 p.m. Thursday. If the Tigers win, they will join the 1938 boys’ basketball team as the only state champions in school history.
“This is unbelievable,” junior Kirk Pierce said. “At the beginning of the year, I thought we would have a good team. But I never dreamed of this. Winning districts was awesome, but this is 10 times better.”
Reaching the championship game is uncharted waters for a program that was winless in its previous five playoff games and hadn’t won a district title since 1992. Hall, now in his ninth season as head coach, was a senior player on that team.
“Things happen so fast. I try to soak as much of it in as I can, and I try to tell the kids that,” he said. “I’ll get more of a chance when this is over to sit back and reflect, and enjoy it.”
The Tigers didn’t just beat West County to advance to the title game. They dominated.
Houston needed just five innings and 1 hour, 20 minutes to dispose of the Bulldogs (18-12). It was the second-shortest game by just one minute in championship series.
The Tigers matched another championship mark with six doubles – two from senior Nathan Trentham and one each by Justin Stringer, Pierce, Cory Hart and David Weybright. Notre Dame-Cape Girardeau, Sikeston and Columbia-Hickman are the only other teams to accomplish the feat.
Houston has scored double digits in six straight games since its opening district victory and has outscored its opponents 70-16 during that stretch. The Tigers had 10 hits against West County and scored in all but one inning, highlighted by a seven-run outburst in the bottom of the fourth that enforced the mercy rule.
“We’re finally putting it all together and crushing the ball,” said Hart, who had a pair of hits and drove in three runs. “We’re making it happen.”
Every Houston player scored at least once, and seven had hits. Pierce and Weybright drove in two runs apiece.
West County managed just two hits against Durst, who struck out seven and walked two in five innings as he improved to 8-2.
Durst survived a shaky start as he walked the leadoff hitter and gave up a run-scoring double to Tyler Stacy. He retired the next three batters to get out of the inning and only allowed two more baserunners the rest of the way.
“He got off to a rough start in the first. Nerves probably played a big part in that,” Hall said. “But he settled in and did what he’s done all year.”
Durst has thrown complete games in the Tigers’ district clinching, quarterfinal and semifinal victories.
“Gus is one of a kind,” Pierce said. “He’s got to be one of the top pitchers in the state. We knew when we went out there that we had a good chance to win.”
After falling behind 1-0, Houston wasted no time taking the lead for good. Stringer doubled to lead off the bottom of the first and scored all the way from second on Caleb Smith’s sacrifice bunt. Hart brought Pierce home with a two-out double to put the Tigers ahead 2-1.
Hart singled home a pair of runs with two outs in the third to knock out Stacy, who was touched for five earned runs in 2 2/3 innings. Travis Swearengin greeted Cody Watson with a single, and David Weybright doubled deep into the left-center gap on the next pitch to make it 6-1.
Durst’s fourth-inning single inside the third-base line brought home Trentham, and Pierce plated two more with a double to right center. Pierce advanced all the way home on a throwing error as Houston led 10-1.
“We’re confident,” Hall said. “We knew their pitchers wouldn’t blow it by us and we heard they were around the plate, so we were ready to hit the fastball in the zone.”
Trentham doubled home Devin Harper with the Tigers’ 13th run, and after giving up a two-out single in the fifth, Durst got Stacy to line out to Stringer to put the Tigers in the championship game.
” We’re really happy to be here,” Hart said. “We’re going to go out (Thursday) and give it all we’ve got.”