TAMPA — Deep down, Jim Macaluso knew he had a difficult decision to make.
While King's offense had built a comfortable three-run lead and ace Brian Lee mowed through four scoreless innings in Tuesday's Class 7A region semifinal against rival Hillsborough, a one-out hiccup by Lee in the fifth — giving up a two-run double to Ryan Romano — had the longtime Lions coach pondering a pitching change in a pivotal moment.
"We were talking as a coaching staff, and he's thrown so well the last third of the season," Macaluso said. "Every start had been a quality start for about five or six in a row. … He had just carried us. As a coach, it puts you between a rock and a hard place."
Macaluso went with his gut, keeping Lee on the mound to protect the now-slim advantage. In turn, his trusty senior came through yet again.
Lee fanned back-to-back batters to strand the tying run and end the frame, then allowed only one hit the rest of the way as King stunned the Terriers 4-2 to advance to its first region final since 2014.
"This was probably the biggest start of my life," said Lee, whose complete-game effort before a capacity crowd snapped Hillsborough's 16-game win streak.
"I just had to focus and let the adrenaline work for me, but not get over-excited."
King (18-11) made sure to provide Lee with plenty of cushion early, bringing across a run in the second on a fielding error, and two more in the third on another error and a base hit by Matthew Jernigan off Terriers' starter Patrick Puentes.
Against a vaunted Hillsborough (21-5) lineup that entered batting .335 as a team, Lee was smooth. He didn't yield a hit until No. 8 batter Quintin Graham singled to open the third.
The bumps, however, came swiftly in the fifth. Lee allowed a leadoff single to Bryce Blanco and walked Graham. Then, after a sacrifice bunt by Aaron Jensen moved the runners up, Romano came through with the huge double that banged off the leftfield fence.
Momentum change? Hardly.
Lee never blinked.
"I just knew I had to keep fighting," Lee said. "My teammates had me on the field. I just had to keep grinding it out."
He did that, and more, never allowing the Terriers to threaten again as Jamarcus Lyons scored a critical insurance run on a bases-loaded, hit-by-pitch in the seventh to help put it away.
"We were going to give him a shot," Macaluso said, "because he deserved it."
As did King — a team once ravaged by hard luck and injuries to key players that brought on a midseason skid.
But the Lions never stopped battling. And for Macaluso, the baseball lifer, Tuesday was a night to cherish for that reason.
"They hung together and hung together, and I'm proud of them because we've been the underdog," he said. "I told them, 'I know Vegas doesn't book these games, but if they did, we would be the underdog.'
"That's just the way the chips fell, and they turned it into a credit for them by coming out and playing well."