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BRANDON — With the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth inning, Jonathon Diaz was headed for home plate when Jefferson coach Pop Cuesta caught him by the elbow and briefly pulled him aside.
“Jonathon, you pitched a hell of a game,” Cuesta told the sophomore right-hander. “Now you’re going to have to win it yourself.”
Diaz clinched his own victory with a bat Thursday, driving in the winning run in Jefferson’s 2-1 win over Strawberry Crest in the semifinals of the Saladino Tournament.
The Dragons (10-3), defending tournament champions, won their fifth straight game and advanced to the final for the second straight year. They will face Bloomingdale in the championship game tonight.
A day after needing three pitchers to survived in a three-hour, 12-8 quarterfinal victory against Wharton, the Dragons turned to Diaz — a 5-foot-9, 175-pound transfer from Alonso — to get them back to the tournament final.
He would have to do it against the Chargers, who entered the semifinal having won seven of their past eight since a 9-5 loss to the Dragons on Feb. 22. Strawberry Crest had been one of the area’s hottest teams in recent weeks, lodging upsets of Durant and previously undefeated Steinbrenner on Tuesday to win its tournament pool.
Diaz got off to a relatively rocky start, walking his first batter and allowing a bunt to the second. Soon after, Chargers catcher Dustin Lawson drove in a run but Logan Fernandez was thrown out trying to steal third on the same play, ending the inning.
Strawberry Crest (11-3), which averaged seven runs in its previous four games, never scored against Diaz again.
“We had to keep it to a small (deficit),” Diaz said.
After the third inning, Diaz retired 10 consecutive batters and 15 of the final 16 — backed by a defense that committed only one error.
The Dragons’ defense came up with its biggest play in the top of the eighth, when Strawberry Crest’s Matthew Collado sent a Diaz pitch off the rightfield wall then tried to extend the play into a triple.
But an almost-perfect throw from rightfielder Jacob Campbell to second baseman Jony Gonzalez and then third baseman Luis Alcaraz beat a sliding Collado to the base, setting off a wild celebration in Jefferson’s dugout.
The Dragons got the third out on the next play, setting the stage for more heroics from Diaz.
Jefferson leftfielder Trey Robinson opened the bottom of the eighth with a single then stole second. He made it to third on a wild throw into the outfield.
The Chargers decided to intentionally walk the next two hitters to get to Diaz, who was 0-for-2 with a walk at that point.
Diaz said he felt “a little” disrespected by the Chargers’ strategy. He went out and proved it by delivering the game-ending RBI, a shot to an open spot in rightfield.
“I came through and proved them wrong,” he said.
He was swarmed by teammates when it was all over, with several of them proclaiming “you’re a real Dragon now” as they walked off the field.
On the other side of the field, Chargers coach Eric Beattie tried to find a bright spot in the disappointing loss. He noted Strawberry Crest was much improved since that earlier loss to Jefferson.
“We’re completely different,” said Beattie, whose team made its first appearance in the Saladino semifinals. “We’re playing with as much heart as I’ve ever seen a team play.”