FORT MYERS — He wasn’t supposed to be on the mound. When the season began, there were college-bound pitchers ahead of Kasey Radke, guys who would have been better suited to start with Jesuit’s fourth state baseball title on the line.
But when nine Tigers didn’t show up for practice on a Monday afternoon in March, everything changed for the senior left-hander. After the season-long suspension of nine players — five of them Division I prospects — the makeup of the team was different. So was Radke’s role.
“It was kind of unfortunate that it had to happen that way, but I took it and I made the best of it,” he said. “I had to step up for the rest of the team and just play for everybody.”
He did that Thursday when the Tigers took on Green Cove Springs Clay in the Class 5A state championship game at JetBlue Park. And in six innings of work, Radke pitched his way into Jesuit history, leading the Tigers to a 5-2 win and delivering a state championship that, for so long, had been just barely out of reach.
Richie Warren, who pitched on Jesuit’s last championship team in 2000, had coached his Tigers to a final-four disappointment four different times before Thursday. Despite the loss of nine players in the middle of the season, Warren still pushed his team to finally break that streak.
“The expectations never changed,” Warren said after Wednesday’s state semifinal win against Sunlake. “They didn’t allow anything they couldn’t control to affect how they practiced and played every day.”
From the very beginning, it appeared as if things would be different for Jesuit (25-6) this time around. The Tigers put up two runs quickly on Kennie Taylor and Danny Lastra RBI-singles in the top of the first. Radke looked sharp in the bottom of the frame, and the Blue Devils went down in order.
The comfort of a two-run lead, though, wouldn’t last.
In the fourth inning, Radke’s pitching grew shaky. He walked the leadoff batter, gave up a single, then walked two more, allowing the Blue Devils to get on the board.
“That’s probably the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life,” said Radke’s father Brad, a former pitcher for Jesuit and the Minnesota Twins. “I’ve been in a lot of situations where I was really nervous, but this tops it.”
Clay (23-8) plated one more run in the fourth on a one-out RBI-single from Jacob Turner, but what could have been even uglier for Jesuit turned into a double play when the Tigers caught two Blue Devils in a rundown to end the inning.
Radke knew then, he said, that he had to refocus. So when the lefty went back out on the mound for the next two innings, he did so with fresh attitude. Radke didn’t give up a hit for the rest of the night, and he ended the fifth and sixth innings with strikeouts, his only two of the game.
Jesuit’s offense followed suit, putting up a pair of runs in the sixth on a Ryan McCullers RBI-double and a Ronnie Ramirez infield single, and one more in the seventh on a Steven Lugo RBI single. The game ended when Ramirez picked off a runner on first for the last out.
Prior to Thursday’s championship win, Brad Radke — who failed to deliver a state title to the Tigers while at Jesuit — had spoken with his son about the newfound role, about making right choices, about situations he might find himself in on the mound.
But when it all came down to it, his son was following one piece of advice in particular.
“When opportunity knocks, take it as far as you can,” Brad Radke said, holding back tears. “In baseball, in life, whatever it is.”
And that’s exactly what Kasey Radke did. All the way to a state championship..
State baseball: By the numbers
36 Tampa Bay titles since 1935
21 Titles by Hillsborough County teams
13 Titles by Pinellas County teams
9 Most titles by a Tampa Bay team (Tampa Catholic)
4 Titles by Jesuit and Clearwater Central Catholic, second most in the bay area
1 Titles each by Hernando and Pasco counties