A year ago Cleburne reveled in the underdog role on the way to its first Class 4A baseball title-game appearance.This season the Yellow Jackets have embraced the challenge of being heavy favorites on most nights as one of the top-ranked teams in Texas. They face Trophy Club Nelson in a best-of-three regional quarterfinals series starting at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Fort Worth Arlington Heights.“I think it’s made us better. This group has accepted the targets on their backs,” Cleburne coach Ross Taylor said. “I haven’t sat down and thought about it a lot, but we have thought about that it’s a lot easier to coach when you don’t have to scratch for three runs, hoping you can win 3-2.”Though the pitching remains strong with a pair of young aces in Tyler Fowler and Dylan Schneider, the Yellow Jackets’ lineup is unquestionably more productive this season.Cleburne (31-5) didn’t score more than nine runs in 12 playoff games in 2012, but is averaging almost 13 runs per outing this postseason after sweeps of Fort Worth Western Hills and Denton Guyer.That type of production has won Taylor’s trust. The coach said he’s letting players swing away in what would have been bunt situations in the past and is limiting hit-and-run calls, effectively trying to stay out of the way of a lineup producing from top to bottom.“I think it’s our younger guys maturing and us maturing as a team, just our bond and everybody coming together,” said senior Quade Coward, who collected four hits to help Cleburne close out Guyer 13-1 in Game 2 of their area-round series last week. “I think it’s helped a lot as far as grinding teams down and not just hoping for a big inning here or there. Eventually it just opens up.”Both Ross and Coward agree that Trophy Club Nelson, the fourth-place qualifier from District 5-4A, is a dangerous team and will be a tough matchup this week.“What I keep hearing is that by the end of their district they were playing as good as anyone, and I heard that from several guys out of their district,” Taylor said. “They are a quality team, they have 16 seniors on that team and that they know how to play the game, so our guys aren’t looking past them.Top 10 showdownTwo of the top-ranked baseball teams in the state will go toe-to-toe this week in Abilene when Southlake Carroll and Midland meet at Hardin-Simmons University for their best-of-three regional quarterfinal tilt.Carroll, ranked No. 4 in Class 5A by the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association, cruised into the third round of the playoffs after sweeping Arlington Lamar and San Angelo Central.No. 8 Midland defeated El Paso Americas in a one-game playoff before edging Richland in three games in the area round.Game 1 is set for 6:30 p.m. Friday. Game 2 is at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, and the deciding game, if necessary, is scheduled for 30 minutes after Game 2.Familiar foesDistrict 6-5A rivals Colleyville Heritage and Hurst L.D. Bell will square off in a best-of-three series this week.Heritage, which finished second in 6-5A, swept the regular-season series against Bell, winning 3-2 in Hurst on April 2 before wrapping up the regular season with a 12-5 victory at home on April 26.Bell has upset both Flower Mound and Waco Midway in the playoffs.Game 1 is set for 7 p.m. Thursday at L.D. Bell. Game 2 will be 4 p.m. Friday at Colleyville Heritage, and Game 3, if necessary, is at noon Saturday at Quick Trip Park in Grand Prairie.
Jarret Johnson, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @JohnsonJarret