TAMPA — Perhaps no two positions in baseball are as closely connected as shortstop and second base.
The pair must understand each other, be able to read the other's tendencies and work in tandem. And when it comes to familiarity, who better to have in the keystone combination than family?
Bonded by blood and the baseball passion of their grandfather Tony Saladino, cousins Austin Sullivan and Jordan "Snook" Feist have been side-by-side on a baseball field since they were old enough to properly hold a bat.
"Our chemistry is so good," Sullivan said.
"Ever since we were six (years old)," shortstop Jordan Feist said. "We've been up the middle. Together."
Now the sophomores are two big reasons why Brandon (17-8) will host Riverview Tuesday in a Class 7A region semifinal game.
"It's such a unique situation," Brandon coach Matt Stallbaumer said. "They've been tied in together since birth."
The two have been working on turning double plays since T-ball at South Brandon Little League and are now doing the same on the Eagles' field. The pair has stabilized the middle of the diamond on a team that is built on pitching and defense.
"That's what we're all about," Feist said. "Coach has preached that to us from the beginning and that's what's gotten us as far as we've gone."
The pair turned a slick double play in Brandon's 1-0 win against visiting Haines City in the region quarterfinal Wednesday. After the play, Sullivan and Feist celebrated with an even slicker high-five combination.
"They are always coming up with crazy new handshakes in practice," Stallbaumer said. "It's nuts how well they just know each other."
Although pitching and defense has been the Eagles' mantra, and the cousins have been a huge part of the latter, both have produced at the plate as well. Sullivan is hitting a team-high .347 while Feist is — naturally — right behind at .338 and second on the Eagles with 15 RBIs..
"They are both very good at situational hitting and that's something we work on a lot," Stallbaumer said.
Feist and Sullivan also credit the baseball lineage they share with Saladino., who coordinates the annual Tony Saladino Baseball Tournament.
The tournament and Saladino's longtime work as a physical education teacher aerned him a place of prestige in the community. A baseball field on Sadie Street bares his name and a park on Bryan Road is named for Saladino and his wife Bertha.
"It's what people know me by," Sullivan said. "And that's a good thing. He's the greatest."
Added Feist: "I couldn't ask for a better person to look up to. He always pushes me to be my best, whether it's academically or athletically."
The Eagles' next test will be Tuesday against Riverview, a team Brandon has defeated twice this year, including a 2-0 victory in last week's district title game.
Brandon Wright can be reached at email@example.com.