PLANT CITY — Just one out from winning his second straight district baseball tournament Friday, Durant coach Butch Valdes paced in and out of the dugout, the nerves visible on his face from under the brim of his navy blue helmet.
Brandon (16-9) hadn’t had a runner in scoring position all night until Troy Linderman singled in the top of the seventh, advanced to second on a balk and stole third.
Brandon got close to tying it, but a botched squeeze with two outs left its last hope high and dry, and Cougars catcher Jake Sullivan caught the Eagle in a rundown for the final out of Durant’s 1-0 Class 7A, District 7 title game win.
“We knew they were probably squeezing right there,” said Luke Heyer, the Cougars’ closer. “I saw the kid run off, I knew the umpire didn’t call strike three, so I screamed for my catcher to go get him. Luckily we did.”
For both teams, baserunners were few and far between. Durant had three hits, two by centerfielder Garrett Wright. The Cougars had a runner on third base in the fourth inning and again in the fifth, but both times they were stranded and the game remained scoreless.
Durant (18-6) was 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position, so it was only fitting that the Cougars’ run came on a bases-loaded walk in the sixth inning.
After Linderman’s leadoff single in the top of the next frame — just the third hit left-hander Bryce Gainer had given up — Valdes pulled his starter and called on Heyer.
“We were late in the game, they’ve seen enough of Bryce,” Valdes said of the switch. “Jumping in with a new guy who’s throwing the ball a little harder, a harder cut, you don’t get time to make that adjustment. That’s what we were going with.”
With a title on the line, Heyer said he was nervous. But just like they’d been used to doing, the Cougars remained steadfast on defense, and finally, despite working their coach’s nerves, it paid off.
Led by second-round draft pick Tyler Danish on the mound, Durant cruised to its first district title in more than a decade last season. This go-around, he was noticeably absent.
But his team’s ability to adjust and defend its title made Heyer all the more proud.
“We all love Danish, and we knew every time we had a chance to win,” Heyer said. “But now, we know as a team, at the plate, on defense, all around, that we can get a win and do great things.”