TAMPA — That powerful right arm has almost always dazzled coaches and scouts, from those toddler T-ball leagues to high school all-star showcases.
To most everyone else, it seemed a certainty Brett Morales would someday use that arm to become a starting quarterback for a high school football team or maybe even pitch in college.
Except Bill Morales didn’t know what his son had. To him, those endless games of backyard catch with his 4-year-old — with both footballs and baseballs — didn’t seem particularly special.
“I thought every kid could do that,” Bill Morales said. “I didn’t know at the time how hard a 4-year-old was supposed to throw.”
He would soon learn, as family members, friends and parents of Brett’s youth league teammates marveled over the velocity coming from his son’s scrawny right arm. They predicted greatness for Bill Morales’ precocious son, and soon he came to believe them.
Brett Morales has delivered on his substantial promise, becoming one of the state’s top pitchers, a UF-signee and possibly an early pick in next month’s MLB draft.
He will take the mound today for King in its Class 6A semifinal against Lynn Haven Mosley, only the Lions’ third appearance in the final four in coach Jim Macaluso’s 38 years with the program.
Once again, a lot of hopes are riding on that right arm.
“We have full confidence in that guy when he’s on the mound,” said senior infielder Devon Pedro, one of four teammates who have played with Morales on varsity all four years.
The Lions (25-3) are back in the state tournament for the first time since 2010, when Macaluso’s undermanned and overwhelmed team lost 11-1 to Pace in the semifinals. That team included five freshmen, including Morales, who didn’t play much that spring but brought a familial bond from their days playing in local youth leagues together.
They — Morales, Pedro, pitcher Brandon Caples, outfielder Sam Rowe and infielder Tanner Williams — dubbed themselves “The Fab Five,” a moniker that has stuck with them throughout their high school careers.
“I felt like we were going to get back to state again,” said Caples, who was the No. 2 starter on that 2010 team. “This team has more talent than that team my freshman year but we’ve still kept that family bond.”
Those bonds can be traced back a dozen years to the Temple Terrace Pony Baseball Shetland All-Stars, a team of 5- and 6-year-olds that included Caples, Rowe, Morales and their manager Bill Morales.
Even then they were good, finishing second in a major state tournament. Among the stars of that team was little Brett Morales, who already possessed a right arm that inspired predictions that local high schools would be vying for his services within a few years.
“It was pretty crazy,” Bill Morales said. “Even now we talk about that.”
However, the Moraleses were a football family and much of their early interest was in the gridiron, not the diamond. Brett played quarterback for a team in new Tampa during middle school and seemed poised for a promising high school football career, possibly at Jesuit or Wharton.
But Brett wanted to go to school with his friends and King offered an Advanced Placement Scholars program that appealed to his mother, meaning — as far as Bill Morales was concerned — football was out.
There would be no risking that valuable arm to damage behind a struggling offensive line.
“I used to be real small,” said Brett Morales, who entered King as a generously listed 5-foot-9, 155 pounds.
“I was a little worried that he might get hurt,” Bill Morales said.
That decision was a relief to Macaluso, who wasn’t all that keen on sharing the promising freshman with another sport.
“When Brett and Brandon came up to the school and started talking about football, I swallowed hard a little bit,” he said. “When you feel a kid can go to college, you don’t want to do anything to risk that.”
Then Macaluso made his own decision to limit Brett Morales’ injury risk by putting him at third base in his freshman and sophomore years.
On a team flush with talented arms, including Caples, Morales got the opportunity to flourish with a bat and a glove. As a sophomore, Morales batted .321 with 23 RBIs and a homer and became comfortable with the idea of playing every day.
“I loved playing third base,” he said. “I thought I was going to be a third baseman for all four years.”
That all changed when Morales went out for a tryout with the Orlando Scorpions travel team before his junior year. It was there coaches and college scouts got a glimpse of that arm strength that had captivated so many others for years.
They asked him to pitch a little more, wanting to see more of that 90-mph fastball. Before long, it was clear Morales’ future would come on the mound.
Morales went 6-1 with a 0.99 ERA as a junior, relying mostly on his overpowering arm. He finally dedicated himself to pitching full time last summer, working on his control and different pitches and getting serious about strength and conditioning.
All of that work has resulted in a senior year that ranks among the most dominant in the state: 11-1 with a 0.44 ERA and 117 strikeouts, making Morales one of the nation’s leaders in that category.
He put it all together in King’s region championship game May 10, allowing only three hits and throwing a school-record 17 strikeouts in a 4-1 victory over Mitchell.
“I felt locked in the entire game,” Morales said. “I’ve slowly gotten used to (pitching). It’s what I excel at.”
It is clear that, as everyone forecast from the start, Morales’ arm is going to take him far — and soon: perhaps Gainesville or several minor-league outposts.
“He’s going to make a living with that arm,” Macaluso said.
But first, Morales and the rest of the Fab Five are hoping that arm — and a few others — can take them to the first state championship of Macaluso’s storied career.
“It would mean everything to us and this program,” Williams said. “We would love to get him his first championship.”
Where: JetBlue Park, Fort Myers
Admission: $9, parking is $8
5A semifinals: St. Johns Creekside vs. Estero, 4 p.m.; Ponte Vedra vs. Jesuit, 7:30 p.m. today
6A semifinals: Orlando Edgewater vs. Southwest Ranches Archbishop McCarthy, 10 a.m.; Lynn Haven Mosley vs. King, 1 p.m. today
On the Web: The games will be live-streamed at fhsaa.org.
About Lynn Haven Mosley
Road to the final four: Defeated Pace 5-1, d. Crestview 3-0, d. Middleburg 10-6
Key players: INF Logan Quimuyog (.348, 38 RBIs, 3 HRs), OF Brady Bell (.481, 24 RBIs, 16 doubles), INF Clay Causey (.411, 37 RBIs, 1 HR), RHP Austin Bizzle (9-1, 1.87 ERA, 71 Ks, 75 IP)
Noteworthy: The Dolphins won the Dunedin Spring Break Tournament, beating East Lake 1-0 in the championship game on March 28; Mosley won its only state championship in 2002, also defeating East Lake in the final; Quimuyog is a James Madison signee.