PORT ST. LUCIE — He was the guy Hernando wanted to pitch, because he was the guy who doesn’t throw 95 mph.
He was the guy who had never pitched beyond the fifth inning.
He was the guy who had thrown only two innings since April 19.
When he took the mound Monday afternoon in the Class 4A state semifinals against the Leopards, Conor O’Brien was ready.
To be The Guy.
“He was the difference,” said Hernando coach Tim Sims.
When your ace is throwing the ball 95 mph, and your No. 2 is not too far behind, you tend to be the preferred choice of opponents.
“I’d much rather see 85 than 95,” said Brent Maggard, Hernando’s losing lefty.
So sure, the Leopards were a bit relieved, excited even, to learn that coach Jesuit coach Richie Warren was going to gamble with O’Brien.
It gave them a chance.
And then, it didn’t: Jesuit won 8-2.
After a bumpy first few batters, and one unearned run, O’Brien retired nine straight and 14 out of 15.
He didn’t need 95.
He needed a changeup with a bite, a good curveball and a two-seam fastball that was just fast enough to help him finish 5-0 this season.
“Conor’s good,” said Warren. “Conor’s going to Florida as a pitcher. We had every confidence in him.”
There had been an inkling all week that O’Brien might be starting.
The 17-year-old senior knew the preference was to go into a state title game with Lance McCullers on the hill. And Warren and his staff thought O’Brien’s changeup, which sinks down and away from lefties, would be perfect for a lineup with lefties hitting in the middle of it.
Saturday at practice, Warren had O’Brien on the mound.
That’s when O’Brien knew.
“Coach is a great coach; he’s got his ways. … he did it the right way for me, he kept me on edge,” he said. “He dropped enough hints just to keep me on edge, to keep my mind right, to keep me going.”
Warren knew Hernando wasn’t a great hitting team, and that it hadn’t seen the same level of competition the Tigers had, and the Tigers’ offense had been great in the postseason.
But considering the Tigers had lost in the state semifinals their past five trips since 2004, and the Jesuit faithful had been tested, it was a risky call.
Warren, though, said he never had a doubt or concern.
Had he started McCullers and won, he said, then the star would be available only for DH duty in the championship.
Instead, he got McCullers for seven innings on the diamond Monday, and hopes for seven more Tuesday.
“We came here to win state,” Warren said. “If you’re second, third or fourth, you just chalk it up as going to the final four. I couldn’t look the team in the eyes tomorrow if we didn’t give it our best chance to win, and the best chance to win is having Lance on field somewhere.”
They wanted five innings out of O’Brien, which is exactly what he gave. After giving up a leadoff single to start the sixth, Warren went to talk to him, and planned on leaving him in.
But O’Brien had done his job, giving up just three hits, the afternoon heat the only thing that caused him to labor.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Coach, I’m done,’ ” Warren said. “He gave everything he had.”
The Jesuit bats — every starter had at least one hit — made the rest easy.
The state baseball tournament record book is filled with state runnersup that had only one pitcher, that threw their ace in the semifinal and went into the final shooting blanks.
It’s the biggest decision a coach has to make this time of year.
When Warren decided to save his biggest arm, he looked for someone reliable, someone with confidence, someone who would rise to the challenge.
Conor O’Brien was The Guy.