Friday, March 23, 2018

Expect the best at state baseball

TAMPA — The question, as it often is with state high school baseball semifinals, is whether to throw your ace in the semifinal or save him for a potential title game matchup.

Over the years, that question seems to get answered mostly like this: ace.

Get there. Then worry about it.

And for the five Tampa Bay teams headed to Fort Myers this week and next, it only makes sense. This is year chock full of brilliant frontline pitchers.

There are future high draft picks like Durant's Tyler Danish, who has signed with Florida and hasn't allowed an earned run all season, and King's Brett Morales, another possible Gator who struck out 17 in the region championship, and Cambridge Christian's Nick Eicholtz, who has signed with Alabama.

There's Clearwater Central Catholic's David Paul, who hasn't lost a game this season, and Jesuit's Spencer Trayner, whose only loss is to Venice, No. 3 in the Baseball America rankings.

Combined record of the aces? Oh, just 47-3, with almost 500 strikeouts in about 350 innings pitched.

No wonder, then, that there are expectations for a golden haul this year at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers.

Here are some other noteworthy things to keep on your state baseball radar:

Five best story lines

1. Can Jesuit finally win the big one? Hey, this was one of the top story lines last year, too. Wait … and the year before that! The Tigers are making their fourth straight trip to state under coach Richie Warren, so the pressure is on. But their struggles at state predate Warren — the Tigers have been seven times since 2002 without capturing the title.

2. Will Tyler Danish give up an earned run? The Cougar star hasn't allowed one in 86 innings pitched. Can anyone remember the last time a pitcher pulled off a perfect ERA in that many innings?

3. Will King's Jim Macaluso finally win one? A King grad, he has been coaching the Lions since 1976 and has sent players like Tim Crews, Calvin Pickering and Derek Bell to the majors. But this is only his second trip to the final four. With Morales on the hill, this is his best shot.

4. How many championships does five teams equal? Five teams are the second-most Tampa Bay has sent to state, behind the amazing seven competing in 2002 when the tournament was held in, you guessed, it, Tampa.

That year, four teams — Clearwater Central Catholic, Northside Christian, Ridgewood (which beat Dunedin) and East Lake (beat Chamberlain) — advanced to championship games.

The Marauders, however, were the only team to win it all.

5. Tampa Bay has to win at least two titles, right? I'd be willing to bet that at least four of the locals make finals. I'm not sure anyone has a dominant No. 2 pitcher to make them a good bet for the title, but if I had to predict, I'd say this group equals the 2001 production, when Seminole and Tampa Catholic won.

Hitters need love, too

Sure, the pitchers are hogging all the glory — sorry, they're just that good — but here are five hitters who deserve props for getting their teams to state:

Levi Gilcrease, Cambridge christian: Hits for average (.493), power (seven homers, nine doubles) and is 19-for-19 on stolen bases.

Tanner Williams, King: Tied for the team lead in RBIs (17) and triples (two), but leads the way with a .431 average and 17 steals.

Luke Heyer, Durant: The catcher is one half of arguably the most formidable battery around. Heyer is second on the team, behind Danish, in homers (one), RBIs (18), hits (30) and runs (20).

Daniel Portales, Jesuit: Probably just the guy you want up with the bases loaded in the seventh inning, as he had struck out only three times in 90 plate appearances before drawing a walk that tied the score in Friday's region final. He's one of four Jesuit starters batting .400 or better, and is hitting .500 in the postseason.

Brenden Overton, CCC: Hit .345 with 31 RBIs and a Pinellas County-best five home runs. Also had a homer and a double in the Marauders' region final win.

Old hands

Three of the coaches have won state championships as players.

CCC's Todd Vaughan was the starting shortstop on the Marauders' 1979 championship team (and also coached the 2002 and '07 champs).

Cambridge Christian's Sam Marsonek won a title with Jesuit in 1994, two years before he was Tampa Bay's Pitcher of the Year and No. 24 pick in the MLB draft.

And Jesuit's Warren threw a complete game and struck out eight in a 2000 semifinal, helping his Tigers to the state championship game, which they won.


Durant is the only team making its debut in the state semifinals.

Jesuit (1994, '97, 2000) and CCC have won multiple championships, and Cambridge (2001, '08, '09) and King (1964, 2010) have previously visited.

Most amazing fact

Lost in all the glory of Danish's stellar season is Morales, who hasn't allowed a run, earned or otherwise, since March 12, a span of 57 straight innings.

In that span, he has struck out 85 batters. Of the 78 innings the King pitcher has thrown, all four earned runs he allowed came in the first inning of two games, against Steinbrenner and Durant.

Same old

At least one area team has advanced to a championship game every year since 2005.

John C. Cotey can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.


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