PORT ST. LUCIE — Another state tournament appearance, another long bus ride home for Jesuit baseball.
Sometimes, it’s a balk.
Other times, it’s a kid who suddenly can’t throw strikes, or one bad inning or one bad pitch.
This time, it was a home run with two outs in inning No. 8 by hitter No. 9.
It was enough to make a man and his players lean hard on faith.
“I think God is testing us,” said coach Richie Warren, “and teaching us a tremendous amount of patience.”
But despite years of state futility in the strangest and most painful of ways, despite a third loss in as many years in the biggest game of the season, this one felt different.
John Kilichowski made it feel different.
There were two runners on, and there were two outs when Kilichowski kicked up his right leg and reared back to throw the biggest pitch of his life in a scoreless state semifinal game many had billed as a mythical national championship, considering Jesuit’s No. 1 rank, and American Heritage’s No. 2.
Kilichowski had thrown the same pitch — fastball, inside corner — a hundred times before.
It has helped him save games this season against Tampa Catholic, Lakeland and Lakewood Ranch, and had helped him shut out traditional state powerhouse Sarasota.
His ERA this season: 0.22.
This fastball didn’t go exactly where he wanted it.
American Heritage second baseman Brandon Diaz, who hit it, said it was right over the plate.
“I made a mistake,” Kilichowski said, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “I saw him make a hard contact. The ball just got up there and kept moving.”
The Vanderbilt commitment sat there, and continued. He didn’t have to. There have been plenty of upset players who have skipped the aftermath of a heartbreaking performance, and even more who were held out by their coaches.
But Kilichowski was stalwart, he was graceful, he was honest.
He was a champion.
I have been to quite a few of these Jesuit state losses. I saw Ronnie Merrill balk. I saw Mike Branham lose his control and throw 10 straight pitches all over the place. I saw Lance McCullers give up a three-run home run last year.
But I will remember most Kilichowski’s voice cracking, as he tried to explain what happened and how he felt.
I will remember him saying, “I’m sorry.”
Warren said it’s tough playing baseball at Jesuit. It’s tough having such high expectations and a target on your back.
This year may have been the toughest.
“It’s tough, because I feel like the only thing that can give the kids satisfaction, or people in the community any satisfaction, is a state championship,” he said.
Yes, 28-2 just doesn’t cut it at some places.
And it’s easy to boo hoo Warren, poor guy, with all the national attention and the 27-man roster of well-to-do kids and the 26 of them who can throw 90 mph and all that.
But most of the Tigers, and most high school baseball players, are just like Kilichowski, a kid throwing a baseball, and sometimes those kids make a bad pitch.
“It’s really tough,” he said. “It eats me up inside. It’s the most painful thing I’ve been through so far in baseball.”
McCullers said baseball is a game that can rip your heart out, and there was Kilichowski’s, on the table, for all to see.
Sensing this, the future millionaire with the 100 mph fastball jumped in to explain to everybody that Jesuit wouldn’t have made it this far without Kilichowski.
Last year, McCullers gave up the three-run homer that cost the Tigers a state title.
He knows how it feels. He got over it, and so will Kilichowski.
Not now, though.
Not this week, or the next.
“It was my home run,” Kilichowski said, and then he thanked his teammates “for not criticizing me.”
When he was out of words, and there was nothing left to explain, Warren looked over at his pitcher. He wanted to take away the pain.
But all he could do, his lips pursed, his expression heartsick, was reach over and put his left hand on Kilichowski’s shoulder.