TAMPA — They took different paths to this point, but Tampa Bay's top two high school baseball players have the same goal this week: to bring home a state title.
Jesuit junior Lance McCullers comes from major-league lineage. Alonso senior Jose Fernandez came to the United States from Cuba three years ago with little more than a dream.
Fernandez has already won a Class 6A state title as a sophomore after beginning that season as a virtual unknown. McCullers' 10th-grade season ended less poetically, with him on the mound in a Class 4A state title loss to Archbishop McCarthy.
On Monday, they return to a familiar place, Digital Domain Park in Port St. Lucie, for their respective classification state semifinals.
In a lot of ways, this week is just the beginning for both players. They just might possess two of the most talented right arms to come out of the bay area, their fastballs on the cusp of registering three digits on a radar gun. Fernandez, a USF recruit, is expected to be a first-round pick in next month's MLB first-year player draft. McCullers, a Florida commitment, should follow suit next summer.
But aside from sharing great physical talent, they're both dedicated to living up to their potential.
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Fernandez wants to talk about his third state tournament. He really does. But nothing comes before his daily workout.
So about 45 minutes later, Fernandez returns, doused in sweat. He was just running, hurling a medicine ball and throwing a bullpen session that included an offering of low-90s fastballs.
Fernandez's training, which often takes four hours a day, also includes swimming. His shoulders broad, his legs thick, the 6-foot-2 Fernandez is now 225 pounds, more than 40 pounds heavier than when he was a sophomore.
"When you work hard, the result will pay off," Fernandez said. "That's what I'm seeing right now. Every time I go out there I feel like I'm getting better. … I'm confident. That's 90 percent of it. You can throw 125, but if you can't throw it inside, you can't do anything. I have confidence in all of my pitches. It's great to be able to go out there knowing you can do a lot of stuff."
Fernandez fled Cuba three years ago, going through Mexico en route to the United States, and landed at Alonso. At one point, he saved his mother, who had fallen out of the speedboat they were riding in, by jumping into the sea. This past week, Baseball America ranked Fernandez the 19th-best draft prospect in the nation.
The national attention started exactly two years ago in the state final, when Fernandez retired 18 straight Miami Columbus hitters at one point in a 4-3 win. Fernandez boasts a 10-0 record in the postseason.
"I think it gives him so much confidence, knowing he's been there before, that he can shut down teams there," Alonso catcher Mike Fahrman said. "Nothing really fazes him."
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The image of McCullers, the son of the former major-league pitcher of the same name, walking off the field after the final out of last year's 4A title game as Archbishop McCarthy players celebrated, stays in his mind.
"That picture said it all," McCullers said of a St. Petersburg Times photo that appeared the next day. "Determination, vengeance, whatever you want to call it. I just wanted to get back there to get another chance at it. Hopefully we make the best out of it this time."
Jesuit's last two seasons have ended with McCullers on the mound, including an eight-inning region semifinal walk-off loss to Plant when McCullers was just a 14-year-old freshman. In last year's loss, Archbishop McCarthy scored three runs on passed balls and another on a wild pitch in the sixth inning to break open a tie game.
But this year McCullers, who was the closer the past two seasons, will have a different role. He has primarily been a starter, which the Tigers believe will allow him to take more control of an entire game.
"He came out with a starting pitcher mentality, realizing that if we want to get back there, we need someone to step up," catcher Nolan Schultz said. "The difference is this year he's accurate right off the bat. Last year, because he played more shortstop, he was a little less accurate."
McCullers admits he would love another shot at Archbishop McCarthy — the Tigers could play the Mavericks in the final — but it's still unclear whether Jesuit coach Richie Warren would save McCullers for the championship.
But that's the way McCullers would want it.
"You don't understand how much it's going to mean until you lose in the last inning or two," McCullers said. "If a couple things go this way or that way, we're the ones going back down there with a state ring. I think to get back there and to possibly face the same team, I think it's going to be a different ball game. We have a different attitude going down this time."