LAKE WALES — It was a call that made Jesuit coach Richie Warren nervous the minute he made it.
Trailing 2-1 in the top of the sixth with one out and the bases loaded, Warren instructed Conor O’Brien to bunt the first pitch he saw. And O’Brien executed the suicide squeeze perfectly to ignite the Tigers, tie the score and turn the momentum to Jesuit. The Tigers scored the winning run two batters later on a dropped strike three en route to a 6-2 win. For the third consecutive year, the Tigers (27-1), ranked the No. 1 team in the nation by Perfect Game, are headed to the final four.
“It was a little risky, obviously, because with one out, if you pop it up, the inning is over,” Warren said. “But it’s something we practice every day, you have to have faith and confidence in your guys to make those plays.”
Thanks to a few walkoff victories during their past two runs to Port St. Lucie, Jesuit was able to stay relatively panic free (“We understand that the game is seven innings, not four,” Lance McCullers said).
McCullers was able to shake off a 33-pitch first inning in which he walked the bases full and gave up his second earned run of the season on an infield hit before striking out the final two batters. After five innings, he was at 110 pitches, but, with the blessing of his father, former major leaguer Lance McCullers Sr., he went out for the sixth.
“He wasn’t laboring, and he was throwing the ball well,” the elder McCullers said. “It was a big inning for him to go back in and get out of it, and he didn’t give up any runs.”
McCullers, whose pitches registered from 81-96 mph throughout the game, finished with 11 strikeouts, six walks, five hits and one earned run over his six innings of work. Offensively, he had his first three-hit game of the year as he went 3-for-4 with three doubles and an RBI in Jesuit’s three-run seventh.
“We were five outs away from it,” Lake Wales coach Jasone Dewitt said. “All of the sudden, it turned into a game of inches. It was an inch away from our pitcher, but that’s part of the game.”
8A: Wharton lineup struggles vs. lefty
ORLANDO — Wharton’s extra-innings victory streak was snapped Friday in a 5-3 loss to Orlando Timber Creek in the 8A region final. Three fielding errors put the Wildcats in difficult situations and Timber Creek capitalized.
“That was bound to happen eventually,” Wharton coach Scott Hoffman said. “These guys just don’t make errors, haven’t all year.”
The Wildcats (21-9) got on the board early as Collin Woody batted in and eventually scored the first two runs in the first inning. Timber Creek responded with one run in the first, another in the second then two runs in the fourth and an insurance run off Woody in the fifth.
The typically stingy combination of seniors Shaun Rubin and Woody surrendered five earned runs and nine hits. The Wolves got an unexpected lift from left-hander Cody Sharp. After the Wildcats got to starter Tyler Konzen, Timber Creek coach Scott Grove went to Sharp in the fourth inning.
“(Konzen’s) been great all year, but they had his number tonight,” Grove said. “I figured we would bring in a lefty and try to offset everything.”
Sharp went four innings, struck out five and walked one. The Wildcats could not get a run off him, earned or unearned.
“I was feeling good, my cutter was working in the bullpen,” said Sharp. “We wanted to keep it in on their hands, keep them off balance.”
Tuck Neuhaus was a bright spot for Wharton, going 2-for-3 with a double and an intentional walk. Ryan Lawson also went 2-for-3.
“We established a lot of things this year, most importantly toughness,” Hoffman said. “That’s something we’ve lacked for some time here.”
The Wildcats can add to their history books first playoff appearance, first district title, first region playoff victory and, according to Hoffman, they will return, “a great nucleus of players.”
“Nobody is feeling sorry for themselves,” he said. “We laid it on the line this year.”
7A: Gaither loses home field, state berth
LUTZ — Gaither’s bats were silent. Coach Frank Permuy wasn’t after his Cowboys’ 2-0 loss to No. 2-ranked Venice on Friday night in a Class 7A region final.
Gaither (18-10) lost more than a game that would have sent it to the state final four for the first time since 2005. The Cowboys also lost their home field. With the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life event Friday on the Gaither football field — adjacent to the baseball complex — the game was moved to Steinbrenner High.
Despite attempts to play the game today or Monday, Permuy learned Thursday night via the Internet that it had been moved. Gaither, which defeated Venice 1-0 last year in the region quarterfinal, managed only two hits — both by Jose Gonzalez.
“I don’t want to sound like sour grapes,” Permuy said. “The kids worked their (expletive) off all year to get to this spot in the tournament and we’ve got to play on somebody else’s field. It’s not fair. (The Florida High School Athletic Association) says both teams have to agree on a (scheduling) change. Of course, (Venice) didn’t agree. It’s just classless on their part to do something like that, especially since we bent over backwards to help them out (moving a game) in another sport.”
The concern at Gaither was the possibility of foul balls hitting individuals on the football field. “I asked two weeks ago about the Relay For Life,” Permuy said. “Our AD (Henry Strapp) said, ‘I think we can have it simultaneously. …I’ll take care of it. But nobody cooperated with us.
“I called (Venice coach Craig Faulkner) and said we’re going to play Saturday at 1 because we can’t play over here on Friday. (Venice’s) AD called the FHSAA around 2:30 Thursday and, obviously, they didn’t agree on it.”
Venice (22-8) kept constant pressure on Gaither’s Alex Milne (4-3), who allowed only three hits and one earned run. The Indians got six of their seven lead-off batters on base. They scored the decisive run in the third as Mike Rivera led off with a walk and Brandon Elmy hit a two-out single.
7A: Eagles still alive
Thanks to an early lead and some small ball — or, to use coach Matt Stallbaumer’s words, “Brandon ball” — the Eagles defeated host Kissimmee Osceola 3-2 to advance to the final four for the first time since 2008.
“From a heart standpoint, I’ve never had a team with more heart than this one,” Stallbaumer said. “It’s pretty cool.”
Brandon (19-8) was 5-for-5 in stolen bases and scored the first run in the first inning thanks to a hit by pitch and three passed balls. Tyler Raymond and Jordan Feist had RBIs in the second, and that was all Brandon starter Eric Hinostroza needed, as he pitched the first six innings.
Chris Toney, who made a catch at the fence in the fifth inning with runners on base, came in to earn the save in the seventh.
4A: Berkeley thrown off its game
TAMPA — Berkeley Prep fell into an early hole against the defending Class 3A state champion, losing 6-1 Friday in the Class 4A region final.
Bishop Verot (28-2) scored three runs in the first inning and three in the third, allowing experience to take over late in the game.
“They’ve been here before and we haven’t,” Berkeley coach Justin Houston said. “They were probably a little more comfortable than we were.”
Pitcher Jeff Passantino frustrated the Buccaneers, striking out six while the defense kept Berkeley baserunners from advancing.
Todd Rancke and Victor Pellegrino each had one-out singles for the Bucs in the third, but a 4-6-3 double play quickly ended the inning.
“When we’re down 6-0 it’s tough for us because we don’t hit a lot of doubles and home runs and things like that,” Houston said. “We’re more of a get them on, bunt them over, drive them home type of team, and they took that away from us.”
Berkeley (17-12) threatened in the sixth with two on and no outs, but Passantino got two batters to fly out and caught Jack Brittain swinging.
The Buccaneers eventually scored in the seventh off an RBI single by Rancke. Berkeley left seven baserunners, three in scoring position.
“Our guys battled and they’ve battled all year,” Houston said. “They showed a ton of character.”
3A: Terrapins refuse to fold
TAMPA — Tampa Prep is on its way to the school’s first state final four appearance after topping Winter Park Trinity Prep 10-6 in the Class 3A region final Friday night.
The Terrapins fell behind 4-0 early behind good baserunning and timely hitting from the Saints, but as Tampa Prep got its bats going, starter Nick Adams found a groove on the mound. With a big third inning, coach A.J. Hendrix’s team was able to power hit its way into a lead.
“Our team has been able to keep its composure all season,” Hendrix said. “We had a slow start but we had good at-bats and made plays when we needed to. Getting to this point has been our goal all season.”
Senior Durin O’Linger gave the Terrapins a lift, finishing 2-for-4 with four RBIs — including a two-run home run to give the Terps a one-run lead during the five-run third inning.
O’Linger, a transfer from Middleton after last season, came on in relief, pitching 2 2/3 innings and striking out five. O’Linger gave up the go-ahead runs but Adams bailed him out with a three-run home run in the sixth inning, giving O’Linger a chance to get the win.
“It was over at that point,” O’Linger said. “I made up my mind going out for the last inning that nothing else was going to happen. I feel special here.
“I can’t even describe how awesome this win feels. It got a little emotional at one point but we haven’t quit all year, we weren’t going to start now.”
Correspondents Andy Warrener, Don Jensen, Basil Spyridakos and David Rice contributed to this report.