TAMPA — In years past, the annual Saladino Tournament has offered up a week of nonstop baseball. It was as close to a hardball marathon as high school baseball could offer, with the champion having to win six games over eight days.
This season, because of Hillsborough County's spring break coming later than usual, there was a monthlong hiatus between pool play and this weekend’s elimination rounds.
Needless to say, a lot has happened since those early games.
Heading into Friday’s quarterfinals, we take a look at who’s peaking and slumping.
Gaither: The Cowboys enter the quarterfinals as the county’s hottest team. They’ve won seven straight and topped previously undefeated Jefferson this week. Gaither coach Frank Permuy’s team lacks heart-of-the-order power and experience — the Cowboys start just three seniors — but nine games into the regular season, Gaither is as battle-tested as teams come.
The Cowboys beat district rival King in 12 innings, then came back from a five-run deficit with three outs left to beat Leto 7-5 in a district game. And their bats came alive for 10 runs against the Dragons.
“We’ve been through a lot of pressure situations, which I think will help us in the long run,” Permuy said. “I still think it’s anybody’s district, it’s anybody’s tournament at Saladino. There’s no clear favorite to me. Everybody has a legitimate chance to win. But I think this will help us.”
The defending champ
Alonso: The Ravens have won Saladino three of the past four seasons, but many of the top hitters that dominated the tournament the past few years are gone. And given a schedule that has the Ravens playing Brandon — the same team they play today — in a must-win district game Tuesday, you might not see Alonso ace Jose Fernandez. And you might only see No. 2 Chris Chism if the Ravens advance to Monday’s final.
“It will change a lot, especially if you’re not squared away in your district,” Alonso coach Landy Faedo said. “Right now we’re a half game behind Brandon. We’re going to go out there and try to win it but we’re going to need to get innings out of guys who we haven’t used as much.”
So for Alonso to repeat, Cody Beckman, Nathan Hahan and Nick Alonso, who’ve combined for 18 1/3 innings this season, will have to shine.
Jefferson: Longtime Dragons coach Pop Cuesta might have his best team in years. Jefferson propelled itself to nine straight wins to start the season, including a district victory over preseason No. 1 Jesuit. With a staff ERA of 1.43 — led by junior ace Jimmy Herget (3-0, 1.08 ERA, 39 Ks in 26 IP) — a deep lineup and the ability to wreak havoc on the bases, they will be dangerous.
Armwood: Take away a loss to Alonso two weeks ago, and the Hawks have only allowed an average of two runs a game in their past six games. Most players in Armwood’s lineup were contributors on last year’s team that advanced to the 5A state title game, and like last year, expect them to get better as the year goes along.
Brandon: The heavy-hitting days have taken a backseat. These Eagles manufacture runs and rely on a pitching staff that has held opponents to a .206 batting average. Senior left-hander Chase Sparkman made a name for himself in this tournament three years ago as a freshman.
Freedom: Second-year coach A.J. Leppla has done wonders to turn around the Patriots' program, and Freedom started the season with three straight wins (five if you include the first two Saladino pool-play games that were technically preseason games). It emerged 3-0 from a pool considered one of the tournament’s deepest. But since a district loss to Hillsborough, which it beat by nine in its pool play opener, the Patriots have lost four of five.
Newsome: The Wolves also haven’t been the same since going 3-0 in pool play. They’re 3-5 since, and their past three losses have been by nine or more runs.
Durant: We still like the Cougars, though they’ve lost two of their past three. Durant owns some of the best wins in the county, handing Plant City its only loss, and beating 6A-8 contenders Plant and Bloomingdale. Coach Butch Valdes has mixed his pitching staff with efficiency, which will help in the tournament format.
Saladino Tournament schedule
Freedom vs. Armwood, 10
Gaither vs. Newsome, 1
Jefferson vs. Durant, 4
Alonso vs. Brandon, 7
Freedom/Armwood winner vs. Gaither/Newsome winner, 4
Jefferson/Durant winner vs. Alonso/Brandon winner, 7
Home run derby, 1