TAVARES — After a devastating two-run loss to Tavares in the district title game, Hernando wanted a shot at revenge.
With USF commit Brandon Lawson on the mound Tuesday night, the Leopards got their vengeance — and their third consecutive trip to the elite eight.
Lawson’s eight-strikeout performance paced a balanced effort in Hernando’s 3-2 victory in the Class 5A region semifinal.
“The breaks of the game went our way in a very tough place,” Hernando coach Tim Sims said.
Now the playoffs will take the Leopards (18-10) to another tough place: Green Cove Springs Clay, which earned a walkoff 1-0 win over Creekside.
Hernando clinched its spot in Friday’s region final thanks to key changes from a sloppy 11-9 loss to Tavares last month.
After an error by Tavares (15-14) in the second inning, backup third baseman Trae Ratliff — playing in place of the ill starter — knocked a single to right to score Cody Gillis.
“I felt it,” said Ratliff, who finished 2-for-3 with a triple.
More runs flowed in the third. Lawson knocked an RBI single to right, and Brooks Timmons followed with another single to score catcher Jake Johnson and give Hernando a 3-0 lead.
Shortstop Christian Arroyo almost added another run in the fourth with a blast to left that nearly sailed over the fence and into the row of pickup trucks lining the field. But the UF commit’s ball hit the wall for a triple, and the Leopards stranded him.
Lawson didn’t pitch in Hernando’s last battle with the Bulldogs, but he performed well Tuesday despite what he called less-than-stellar stuff.
“I had to pitch to contact tonight,” Lawson said. “I got my ground balls and fly balls. My team made plays behind me. You see the result.”
The right-hander allowed only four hits and threw 69 of his 101 pitches for strikes. Tavares scored its first run after a bloop single and a rocket to leftfield by Christian Germeroth in the third. Lawson’s wild pitch in the fifth let the other run score.
But Lawson showed signs of progress and maturity. He forced two outs after a balk, and he recovered from the wild pitch to strike out the next batter.
When a controversial overturned play at first extended Tavares’ sixth inning, he hardly flinched as he listened to his coach talk with the umpire.
“It started on the mound,” Sims said of his team’s win.
It didn’t end there.
A defense that committed six errors in the teams’ last meeting was nearly flawless. Johnson negated the Bulldogs’ second chance by throwing out Jamison Thomas trying to steal second.
The Leopards breezed through a perfect seventh to put themselves one win from a second consecutive trip to the final four.