TAMPA — Ask anyone locally or nationally who has seen the Jesuit High School baseball team play, and chances are they’ll tell you that this is the year.
“We’re due. We’re overdue for a state title,” junior pitcher Spencer Trayner said. “And we deserve one, with how much hard work we’ve been putting in.”
It looks that way from the national perspective, too.
“I’ve got to believe that this is their year,” said Kevin Askeland, MaxPreps’ national baseball writer who compiles the weekly rankings and has Jesuit ranked lower (No. 7) than any other prominent poll.
“Jesuit kind of has it all,” added Ben Collman, Perfect Game’s scouting coordinator for the East Coast. “It’s one of the most storied programs in the country. They continually win and continually produce talented players and prospects. They do it every year.”
There’s just one thing Jesuit is missing — and has been missing — for 12 years: a state title. The Tigers have come close, finishing as the runners-up the past two years. This year, though, they have more experience, more depth and fewer losses (25-1) than any Jesuit team in recent memory. And there’s something else the Tigers have: pressure.
“There’s always pressure when you play for Jesuit,” said senior Lance McCullers, one of the top pitching prospects in the nation. “This year, you have guys that have lost states twice now. The pressure is always here, but the expectations are higher. We feel that, and we embrace that.”
There are a few key differences between this year’s squad and the previous two that lost to Southwest Ranches Archbishop McCarthy (a third game won’t happen as Archbishop McCarthy is now in a different class).
For one, Jesuit won the Class 5A, District 11 title, giving the Tigers a home playoff game in the region quarterfinals — tonight vs. Bradenton Bayshore — for the first time since 2006.
The Tigers also ended a seven-year losing streak against Sarasota with a 1-0 win April 18, a victory coach Richie Warren called the biggest win for this collective group.
“Earlier in the year, we talked about a list we had,” McCullers said. “Be first in districts, win districts, win state and beat Sarasota.”
More importantly, though, is the number of quality pitchers the Tigers have at their disposal.
“You look at our pitching depth, and I would rival it with anybody in the country,” Warren said. “Especially in the one-and-done playoffs, you play pitch by pitch.”
Collectively, the Jesuit staff has an ERA of 0.73, the lowest it’s been in Warren’s six-year tenure. McCullers, Trayner, senior Conor O’Brien and junior John Kilichowski have pitched more than 25 innings each, and their ERAs range from 0.00 (Kilichowski) to 1.01 (O’Brien). And those are just the arms Jesuit uses most often.
“With Jesuit, even the guys that don’t pitch for them are 90 mph guys like Max Beermann, Adrian Chacon and Jordan Parnell,” said Collman, who has Jesuit ranked No. 1 in the country . “Those are three more guys that don’t even pitch for them that would be the aces for most other teams in the country.”
As the ace of the staff (and projected first-round draft pick in the upcoming MLB draft), McCullers has given up just one earned run in 58.1 innings for an ERA of 0.12. He’s also struck out 107 batters and was clocked at 100 mph April 19 against Clearwater Central Catholic.
McCullers, who has been a can’t-miss prospect since Vanderbilt offered him a scholarship before he entered high school, said the entire staff, himself included, has stepped up its mental game.
“Before, I was a gunslinger. I would come in, and I would just throw,” said McCullers, a Florida commit whose previous playoff record is 4-1 with one save and a 1.18 ERA in 31.1 innings with 46 strikeouts and 19 walks. “And I’m a pitcher now, I look forward to going all seven innings, I look forward to being able to face guys multiple times, being able to set guys up for certain pitches.
“And after an at-bat, I’m looking forward to throwing them certain things next time up. I have a routine now, and I realize I control the game by my tempo. I’m always in control, I’m never out of control. That’s something I’ve made huge strides with.”
There is one source that seems to doubt Jesuit’s dominance, and that’s the MaxPreps’ computer rankings. Billed as “100 percent objective,” the Freeman rankings have the Tigers at No. 4 in the state and No. 52 in the nation.
That, Askeland said, could be a result of the strength (or lack thereof) of Jesuit’s district schedule. The Tigers had a plus-111 run differential in 12 district games against five teams with a .329 winning percentage.
“The computer, it’s all based on who you play and who those teams play, and so on down the line,” he said. “Not that we don’t take that into consideration, but we’re able to see that Jesuit has a nationally ranked, top recruit in the country, so we can figure that into our rankings. The computer doesn’t do that. All the computer does is look strictly at scores.”
Meanwhile, any expert with eyes expects Jesuit to march to Port St. Lucie for the third year in a row.
“We couldn’t get the (region quarterfinal) moved to 7:30 because of the sun, so plan on 7,” Warren told his team as they sat in the dugout before practice Monday. “And then we’ll host again next Tuesday and we could host again after that.
“If we’re fortunate enough to advance,” he added, then paused. “I’m planning on us being there, so I’m going to talk like it.”
Laura Keeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org