TAMPA — As the playoffs began, Wharton coach Scott Hoffman decided to leave nothing to chance.
He ate the same lunch — a roast beef sandwich, Wheat Thins and water — every day of the tournament, and spent most of the bus ride to Durant working his way to the back so he could be the last one off.
Once on the field hitting coach Wade Boggs took over, carrying a rope and having each Wildcat pull on it (“It’s like if you have a teammate falling off a cliff, you can toss him a rope and pull him up,” pitcher Shaun Rubin explained).
Should the offerings to the baseball gods have failed, Wharton, in the estimation of pitching coach Bob Adams, had the luxury of relying on the best 1-2 pitching combinations in the current staff’s nine-year tenure: Rubin and fellow senior Collin Woody. And it’s hard to question that judgment as the Wildcats have achieved two notable firsts in the program’s 15-year history: a district title and win in the region playoff round.
Wharton (20-8) has just one more game against a Class 8A, District 7 opponent as the Wildcats face Durant (16-9) for the fourth time this season at 7 tonight for the right to advance to the region final. Wharton holds a 2-1 edge — including a 12-inning, 1-0 win in last week’s district championship — and neither Rubin nor Woody has surrendered an earned run against the Cougars this season.
And, while the results are largely the same — Rubin has pitched 76 1/3 innings with a 1.56 ERA and 6-3 record and Woody is 8-2 with a 2.00 ERA through 70 — their methods are fairly different.
“He’s more of a power pitcher,” Rubin, a Harvard signee, said of Woody, “and I’m more on the crafty side, will throw it everywhere. He’s more of a strikeout guy, and I’m just more like, ‘Hey, try to hit it past our defense.’ ”
And add in another contrast: Rubin was Wharton’s ace last season while Woody made just three brief appearances.
“I kind of held the reins back on him a little bit, and I was really tough on him,” Hoffman said of Woody, who is still weighing his college options. “We have a love-hate relationship. I tried to get him tough-skinned, and he has really done a great job of that. He’s been ready to go. If there’s something going on in the game, I want him at the plate or on the mound, one of the two.”
Woody, for his part, just laughed and said, “We give each other a hard time.” But he fulfilled his coach’s wishes and has come through several times this postseason.
In a do-or-die game vs. No. 2 seed and defending state champion Alonso in the district tournament, Woody pitched eight innings of four-hit baseball while striking out 12, and also hit a two-run double for the game’s only runs in the top of the eighth. He scored the winning run two days later in the district title game.
And, after Rubin pitched five innings and gave up one run in the region quarterfinal against Sarasota Riverview, Woody pitched the next seven innings, giving up just three hits while striking out 11.
“You’ve got to get to him early because he throws harder in the fifth, sixth and seventh than he does in the first, second and third,” Adams said of Woody, who tops out at about 88 mph and has the freedom to call his own pitches. “He has great command and confidence in his breaking ball, he’s come a long way with his changeup, but his fastball, when he feels like it, he just thumps it.”
With one more thumping of a 8A-7 opponent, Wharton will be on the doorstep to the state tournament in Port St. Lucie. And, after surviving a district schedule that resulted in the MaxPreps Freeman rankings listing them the fifth-best team in the nation and No. 1 in Florida, the Wildcats feel plenty prepared.
“It gives us a ton of confidence knowing that we’ve faced the best of the best and now we can beat any team,” Rubin said of the 8A-7 schedule. “We’re not going to face teams much tougher than we’ve faced all year long.”
7 p.m. Tuesday; admission is $7
8A: Durant at Wharton
7A: Seminole at Gaither
7A: Riverview at Brandon
7A: Lakewood Ranch at King
5A: Robinson at Jesuit
4A: Tampa Catholic at Berkeley Prep
3A: Tampa Prep at Lakeland Christian
2A: Cambridge at Winter Haven All Saints’