TAMPA — After nine varsity baseball players were suspended for the season due to violating a team policy in March, Jesuit coach Richie Warren knew he had some big shoes to fill.
There was more than a month left in the regular season for a team that had started its 2014 campaign with 10 Division I commits. The Jesuit alumnus, though, knew he didn’t have to search far and wide to find replacements.
“We have a lot of quality guys in our program and a lot of guys that are on JV to start the season would be No. 1 starters anywhere in the county, top of the lineup guys anywhere else in the county,” Warren said.
On March 22, Warren went to Jesuit’s JV practice with a depleted roster. After meeting with selected players individually, he left with one fresh with the names of six Tigers who were ready to answer his call.
“I think they were excited,” Warren said, “but I also think they knew, ‘Okay. It’s time to work.’ ”
That following Monday, sophomores Steven Lugo, J.J. Niekro, Nick Perillo, Michael Sandborn, Hunter Tubbs and freshman Alex Mocny showed up for their first varsity practice. Three days later, the six made their debut in a district matchup against Robinson.
Thrust onto a new team with merely days notice, Sandborn said that first night was nerve-wracking. Lugo, who started at second base against the Knights and in every game since, simply wanted to start off on the right foot.
And in a 5-3 extra-innings win, that’s exactly what he did.
In the top of the eighth, Jesuit (20-6) scored the winning run on an RBI single from Jacob Mocny, and Lugo followed moments later with a single to leftfield, knocking in one more run for good measure.
“I was just happy to get it out of the way,” Lugo said of his hit. “If you start off and you’re not really getting hits and stuff, you tend to force a lot of things, do too much.”
Lugo, who started on the varsity team at Hillsborough last year as a freshman, continued to prove his worth. In his second game with Jesuit’s varsity team, an 11-1 win against Middleton, he went 1-for-1 with three RBIs and two sac flies.
The 6-foot sophomore will go into Wednesday’s region quarterfinal against Boca Ciega with a .357 batting average, third highest for a Jesuit starter. But Lugo’s contributions on the field, Jesuit pitcher Kasey Radke said, have been just as strong.
“He’s a good defender, and he’s a good hitter, too,” the senior left-hander said. “I’m never scared to have someone hit a ball to him. I know he’ll always make the play for me.”
Because the plays and signals are the same for both the JV and varsity squads, Warren said he had no doubt the six JV players would make a smooth transition into the big leagues of high school baseball.
That confidence was put to the test when Warren started Sandborn, a left-hander, in Friday’s Class 5A, District 7 championship game against Robinson. Sandborn pitched six innings in the Tigers’ 6-2 victory, giving up just four hits, striking out four and walking one to earn his second varsity win.
Even in the biggest game of the season to date, Warren’s midseason call-ups have come through, helping save a season riddled with adversity. And with the biggest games still to come — ones that will determine whether the Tigers will earn their fifth straight state final four berth — his confidence in them to continue to do so remains steadfast.
Warren knew exactly what he was getting when he promoted six players just more than a month ago. But the process has been a continual learning experience for Sandborn.
And he’s living the greatest lesson of all.
“Just expect to be ready whenever, because you never know what’s going to happen,” Sandborn said. “You should always be ready, always be serious, always be proud to have the name across your chest.”
7A: Sickles at Durant
7A: Brandon at Wiregrass Ranch
5A: Robinson at Bradenton Bayshore
5A: Boca Ciega at Jesuit
3A: Tampa Prep at Lakeland Christian
8A: St. Petersburg at Plant
8A: Bloomingdale at Sarasota Riverview
6A: Osceola at Jefferson
6A: King at Mitchell
4A: Tampa Catholic at Avon Park
4A: Lakeland McKeel at Berkeley Prep
2A: Cambridge Christian at Canterbury
2A: Lakeside Christian at Bayshore Christian