BRANDON — He is the last one off the folding chairs outside the Alonso dugout, and you see that Ray Delphey's left knee is in a brace.
He doesn't walk so much as he lumbers, tiptoeing so as to avoid putting the weight on his injured leg.
In the distance, just off the pitching mound, his teammates are jumping around, hugging, smiling.
Delphey, the Alonso pitching ace for most of this season, is the last one to the party.
This should be a sight of despair for the Ravens, but these juxtaposed images — Delphey inching his way toward a pile of giddy teammates — are strangely soothing.
Two days before the Saladino Tournament started, he was lost for the season with a torn ACL.
And the Ravens haven't lost since.
It is the most grinding, tiring and exhausting high school baseball tournament around.
Seven days. Six games, if you're lucky enough to make the final. A marathon of pitching, hitting and plowing through paper plates of Bertha Saladino's cooking.
And yet, after Friday's victory over Gaither to capture its second Saladino Tournament title in three seasons, Alonso looks remarkably fresh.
Tyler Ding shrugged his shoulders.
"We figured if we were going to be here, we might as well win it," said the hot-hitting second baseman, who wasn't picked as the tournament's best hitter but should have been.
Forget about the secret ingredients in Bertha's potato salad. What is it they put in that championship trophy?
Last year, Saladino winner Brandon made it to the state semifinal.
The year before that, Alonso made the region final.
In 2006, Hillsborough made it to the state championship game.
So why not Alonso in 2009?
"This is a big boost," said shortstop Tito Martinez, who led off the championship win with a home run. "A great confidence builder."
They already play in the toughest district in Tampa Bay. The Cowboys, who made their own incredible run to the Saladino final, will have a say at the 6A-7 tournament in a few weeks.
Mitchell is there, by the way coming off a no-hit win earlier this week. Sickles and Countryside are lurking, upset-savvy enough to scare some people.
However, at this moment, and we know this now for sure, Alonso is still the team to beat, even without Delphey.
"We wanted to prove something to everyone who thought we were done," said Ding. "They might have been happy about Ray, but I think we showed we can hit the ball a little, too."
The Saladino starts, and Ding and Thomas Dorminy turn red hot, and Casey Smit drives in a run in every game but one, and Martinez hits a homer, and Matt Brandy gets three hits against Plant in the semifinals and throws a key 1-2-3 inning and Jose Fernandez shows he might be the guy who steps into that No. 2 pitching role.
"People are starting to step up," Delphey said. "Everybody, really. Maybe they decided since we lost a pitcher, they needed to start hitting more. That's the best I've seen us hit all year."
Alonso coach Landy Faedo says he isn't surprised his team won the 29th annual Saladino.
He preaches remaining level-headed at all times. No ups, no downs. Consistency day in, day out.
"It's how you avoid the big letdown," he said.
It's how you win the Saladino.
And maybe, a whole lot more.
John C. Cotey can be reached at [email protected]