TAMPA — Tied with Plant — a team Bloomingdale just couldn't seem to top the three times they met during the regular season — after seven innings of a Class 8A region semifinal, Bulls coach Kris Wilken gave his team one order before heading into the eighth inning.
Riding the talents of junior right-hander and Florida State commit Logan Crouse, Bloomingdale had leaned on strong pitching all season. But now, the Bulls had to score at least one more run to advance.
"First thing Wilken said was, "We need a leadoff guy on base,' " Conrado Skepple said.
Thankfully for Wilken, the right guy was due up.
All year, the Bulls had struggled to swing the bats at the right time. But Skepple, one of just two starters with an average above .300, has held his own. And against the Panthers, that's exactly what the junior did.
Skepple came through with a leadoff single, and he was immediately bunted to second. Before Wilken knew it, Skepple had stolen third and Crouse singled him home before going back on the mound to seal the 5-3 win.
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From the start of the season, Wilken knew pitching and defense would be the Bulls' main weapon. So the seven-year coach toyed around with Skepple's place in the lineup, initially putting him where he could knock in the few runs his Bulls could muster.
Wilken soon discovered that wouldn't work so well.
"It was a situation where not enough guys were getting on base for him to knock in," Wilken said. "So we had to take our chances with him being the guy that gets knocked in."
Now with a team-leading .471 on-base percentage, Skepple has made his home in the two-hole. A self-identified overweight freshman, Skepple s aid he lost 10 pounds in his first season with the Bulls and also added muscle, which has helped him steal his team-leading 19 bases this season.
Unfortunately for Bloomingdale (20-9), there aren't a whole lot of Bulls like Skepple. It has just a .252 team batting average and been outscored 58-16 in its nine losses.
Still, the Bulls have strung together a three-game win streak — securing go-ahead runs in the seventh, eighth and sixth innings — to advance to their first state semifinal in a decade.
And though the offense can be hit or miss, Crouse, who will start on the mound against Lake Worth Park Vista (27-3) on Friday, said he isn't worried.
"We play good defense. That's our game," said Crouse, who has a 0.69 ERA over 80 innings. "If we play our defense, play our game, all we need is one run."
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Come Friday, all eyes could be on Skepple to again deliver that run. But the rightfielder says that doesn't change his demeanor at the plate.
"I just try to do the best I can; put the ball in play, reach first, hopefully steal a base," Skepple said. "Steal two, maybe."
Skepple was in first grade the last time the Bulls reached the state semifinals, and Bloomingdale has never won a state title. Some of his peers, Skepple said, don't believe that will change this year.
"We have a lot of doubters at our school," Skepple said. "A lot of people saying we aren't good enough. Everybody saying we lost too many seniors. But we just pulled through, and we proved all of them wrong."
Dominant offense or not, the Bulls are confident they've got what it takes to continue doing just that.
Class 8A: Bloomingdale vs. Park Vista Lake Worth
When/where: 1 p.m. Friday; JetBlue Park, Fort Myers
Admission: $9 per day; parking is $8.