TARPON SPRINGS — If strong pitching and defense are the bellwethers of a deep playoff run, consider East Lake ready.
Playing second seed Pinellas Park on Thursday night for the Class 8A-7 title, the host Eagles (22-3) used that philosophy to make the most of their limited offensive opportunities, prevailing 3-0.
"We've been going a little lax the last couple of regular-season games," Eagles head coach Kristie Delk said. "We weren't nervous, we just knew what we had to do … we had to step up our playoff game. It was a mentality we took in, to attack from the first inning."
After sophomore pitcher Tori Brennan stranded Justice McCrainie (reached on error) at third base, East Lake worked some two-out magic in the bottom of the first. Kendyl Crean flaired a single to shallow centerfield, stole second and came home on McKenna Graham's gap shot double to right-center.
In the second, Ashley Kirkbride roped a double over the leftfielder's head with Kansas Crean drawing a free pass. No. 8 hitter Nikki Steiniger hit a soft liner that turned into an infield single with Kirkbride eluding catcher Katelyn Meadows' tag. Just as importantly, Crean and Steiniger moved up a base on the throw, allowing Crean to score on a muff of Caroline Jacquay's infield grounder.
That was the extent of East Lake's scoring as pitcher McCrainie (four strikeouts) got stronger for Pinellas Park (12-10), scattering four hits the rest of the way.
But as strong as McCrainie was, Brennan was even stronger as she gave up two singles the rest of the way, fanning six. Only one Patriots runner got into scoring position but didn't stay there long.
In the top of the sixth with Zhariya Marshall (single) at second, Adalis Cubano was thrown out by shortstop Kirkbride. Marshall looked to advance behind the throw but first baseman Graham fired a perfect throw to Kendyl Crean to catch the junior at third and end the inning.
This followed back-to-back fourth-inning gems, a diving grab by leftfielder Shermaine Caballes, then a sliding grab of a hot groundball by second baseman Sydney Grossi that she fed to Graham for the third out.
"The momentum we got from that diving catch, the play we made throwing from first back to third … the defense stepped up and got us out of two jams," said Delk. "We were playing nice fundamental ball and I'm super, super proud of the girls."
The Patriots got some strong defense of their own when McCrainie lunged toward the first base line to snag a shallow second-inning pop-up and turn it into a double play. Centerfielder Julie Thielmann ended the sixth inning with a fully-extended diving grab in shallow right-centerfield.
"Right now I think East Lake is the top team in the county and we're only going to get better by playing the best," said Pinellas Park coach Shane DeMartino. "Our defense is working, we're clicking on defense, we've just got to do our part at the plate. Put the ball in play and make teams make plays on us."