FORT MYERS — The Jesuit High School baseball team has tried virtually everything to win a state championship these past 14 years.
It has sent nationally-ranked teams led by All-American pitchers, first-round draft picks and future millionaires into the state final four eight times, coming home empty each time.
The Tigers may have finally stumbled upon a solution.
Send the kids.
• • •
Michael Sandborn was 12 years old, maybe 13, when he remembers first paying attention to the Jesuit baseball team.
He read about Lance McCullers Jr. and how good the Tigers were, and was impressed.
“I guess I became a Tiger fan before I even got there,’’ he said.
That was just two years ago.
On Wednesday at JetBlue Park, just a few days shy of his 16th birthday and with an expertise beyond his years, the kid fired his third straight masterpiece in a two-hit, eight strikeout performance as Jesuit advanced to the Class 5A state championship game with a 3-0 victory over Sunlake.
Only two Sunlake baserunners reached second. Only one made it to third.
The little lefty whiffed the last three batters to close it out.
“He just got better,’’ said his catcher, Ryan McCullers.
• • •
The game took 95 minutes. Sandborn pitched like someone in a rush to get somewhere Wednesday, and that somewhere may end up being Jesuit lore, which, quite frankly, has been a place reserved lately for pitchers who leave the state tournament with broken hearts.
“I would definitely say I’m in a groove right now,’’ he said, his left arm covered from shoudler to wrist by an ace bandage holding two ice bags in place. “I never expected this to be my breakout year.”
Who did? But situations arise, stupid decisions are made by kids who should know better, and coaches need to sometimes call on the unexpected.
Sandborn was one of a handful of kids called up from the junior varsity when Jesuit dismissed nine players for violating school rules.
Sandborn arrived at the right time, and the big stage didn’t faze him.
He mixed his two- and four-seam fastballs to perfection, pitched like anything but a kid and lowered his ERA to 0.70.
He came to Jesuit having played everything as a little leaguer, even catcher. As a Tiger, he figured he’d be a first baseman and pitch a little, too.
“I figured I’d grow into whatever position would get me further,” he said.
His growth spurt now includes a win in the district championship, a save in the region quarterfinal, and wins in the semifinal and final.
And Wednesday's state semifinal, of course, when he likely ended his first varsity season with his 24th straight scoreless inning.
• • •
Sandborn is a 4.0 student who has a quirky skill of repeating your sentence to you backwards.
He picked up the skill in the third grade, because he read at such an advanced level it was probably more of a challenge to read backwards.
“I’ve been told it’s a waste of brain cells," Sandborn said, laughing as he walked out from the bowels of JetBlue Park and into a swath of blue-clad admirers.
The kid who can read backwards is a bright ray of sunshine for a team desperately trying to look forward.
John C. Cotey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.