TAMPA — Paulie Russo was waiting on one pitch.
The Tampa Catholic shortstop couldn’t find it in his first three at-bats against rival Jesuit, striking out in the first, third and sixth innings Friday at Peter J. Mulry Field. And Russo wasn’t alone. Jesuit left-hander Bobby Hearn held the Crusaders hitless through six frames and helped the Tigers take a lead into the last inning.
Tampa Catholic finally strung a few hits together in the seventh, putting Russo in a bases-loaded situation as he stepped up for the fourth and final time.
Then he found it.
Tampa Catholic was one out from losing when Russo sent a 2-2 pitch through a leftfield gap. The winning run hadn’t even crossed home plate when helmets and hats flew as the Crusaders celebrated the walk-off, two-run double and 4-3 come-from-behind victory.
“I just know that it’s time to shine when you’re in pressure situations,” Russo said. “Once you get to the plate, you get zoned in and you know what you’re looking for.”
The game might have ended in dramatic fashion, but for the first six innings, it was much of the same struggle for the Crusaders.
Tampa Catholic scored in the bottom of the first inning, capitalizing on a walk, balk, hit by pitch and Joseph Burruezo sacrifice fly. But for the next five innings, Hearn sat the Crusaders down quickly. He finished the game with two walks and nine strikeouts in six innings of work, allowing just two hits against two batters in the seventh.
Jesuit (8-1) scored on a Tampa Catholic (3-1) error in the third and sixth innings, and added an insurance run later in the sixth after a Jacob Mocny sacrifice fly. But despite Jesuit’s four hits, Tampa Catholic left-hander AJ Chacon, Jr., threw more than 100 pitches in 5 1/3 strong innings to keep the Crusaders within reach.
“We knew that we had to keep the game close and just have a chance at the end to pull something through like this,” Tampa Catholic coach Ty Griffin said. “Chacon kept us in the game, and he kept the game close enough where we had a shot.”
After allowing back-to-back singles in the seventh, Hearn was replaced by Jesuit closer Ronnie Ramirez. Outfielder Bentley Sanders scored from third on a Ramirez wild pitch to pull the Crusaders within one run, and Ramirez walked his second batter to load the bases, striking out two before Russo came up.
Having picked himself off the turf following a Tampa Catholic dogpile after the two-run walk-off, Russo seemed relieved. He had patiently waited for the one pitch he was looking for, Russo said, and it paid off.
His Crusaders playing against one of the best teams in the Tampa Bay area, Griffin said he just wanted them to have a chance in the last inning. When Russo stepped up to the plate, Griffin knew the Crusaders had more than that.
“Paulie is Paulie,” Griffin said. “So for him to be in that situation, it’s something that you write up. You would write that script for Paulie Russo.”