FORT MYERS — Jesuit coach Miguel Menendez said he isn’t big on pregame speeches, but he did have a few words for his team prior to Saturday afternoon’s Class 6A state title game against Dunedin.
“I told them, ‘All you have to do is win one baseball game. How many times in your life have you won a baseball game? Don’t make it anything more than it is,’ ” Menendez said.
After a sketchy start, the Tigers did win one more baseball game.
Jesuit scored three runs in the fifth inning, all with two outs, tacked on a big insurance run in the sixth and hung on to defeat the Falcons 4-3 at Hammond Stadium.
This is the Tigers’ fifth state championship and their first since 2014. Saturday’s game was a rematch of the 2017 Class 6A state semifinal, which Jesuit won 7-0. Jesuit (27-5) has won six of the past seven meetings between the schools.
Menendez’s pregame talk didn’t have much effect early. Despite getting runners on base in each of the first four innings, the Tigers couldn’t push a run across against Dunedin starter Dominic Pineiro.
The Falcons (23-9) were able to push a run across in the first inning. With two outs, Tristan Morton was hit by a pitch and Lake Fisher walked to put two runners on.
Jonathan Hubbard then hit a slow roller to shortstop, but the throw to first was wide. Courtesy runner Connor Russell was able to score from second for an early 1-0 lead.
“We manufactured a run with two outs and nobody on,” Dunedin coach Ron Sexton said. “We’ve done that so well lately.”
The one-run lead held until the fifth inning, when the Falcons made a pitching change.
Pineiro pitched four scoreless innings and allowed three hits. With the lineup turning over for a third time in the fifth, Sexton opted to go with left-hander Dominic Baratta.
“I don’t think I would’ve done it any different,” Sexton said. “We just felt like it was another time through the order and their lefties are good sticks. We just felt like it was in our best interest to start him off fresh. He’s been a big arm for us. I’d do it again.”
What Sexton probably didn’t know is that Jesuit’s left-handed hitters are above average against left-handed pitchers.
“Honestly, when they brought the lefty in I was kind of happy,” Menendez said. “It’s strange to say because of the all the left-handers we have. But we’ve faced a left-hander in every playoff game so far. It’s old hat for our guys.”
The Tigers proved Menendez right.
Jesuit loaded the bases with two outs. BJ Graham drove in Bradke Lohry from third with an infield single to deep shortstop.
Cole Russo, who had a walk-off hit to beat last year’s Class 6A champ, Jefferson, in the region semifinal, then singled solidly to rightfield to give the Tigers a 2-1 lead.
“I was just trying to find a fastball I could drive,” Russo said. “He was throwing a lot of fastballs and I’ve been good with lefties all year. He threw one in to me and it was nice.”
Henry Politz followed that with a single of his own for a two-run cushion.
But Dunedin did not go away.
The Falcons loaded the bases in the top of the sixth off reliever Josh Mallitz, who relieved starter Justin Clark in the fifth. Clark allowed only one run and one hit, although he did hit three batters.
Mallitz threw a wild pitch that allowed one run to score and cut the lead to 3-2. He was able to get a strikeout with runners on second and third to escape any more damage.
Then came what turned out to be a huge run in the bottom of the sixth. With a runner on first and two outs, Nick Rodriguez slashed a double down the leftfield line that made the score 4-2. He was thrown out at third trying to stretch it to a triple.
“Somehow the ball got between third base and the third-base line,” said Rodriguez, who started the season on junior varsity. “I tried to make it a triple, but it really didn’t work out. But it’s crazy. I didn’t even start the season on the team and now I had one of the winning RBIs in the state championship game.”
In the seventh, Ray Sass led off with a double, which chased Mallitz. Turner Thompson relieved and got a groundout to second for the first out. Fisher then hit a deep fly to leftfield that allowed Sass to score the third run.
Thompson was able to get a strikeout to end the game.
“We never feel like we’re out of a game,” Sass said. “We give up three and go down two, but we really didn’t feel out of the game. We’ve done it before, let’s do it again. It’s one of my favorite things about playing on this team.”
This was a successful state tournament for the area. Jesuit joins two other state champions, Calvary Christian in Class 4A and Plant City in Class 8A.
With five state titles, Jesuit is now four behind Tampa Bay leader Tampa Catholic, which has nine championships. The Tigers have several juniors and sophomores who are key contributors this season.
“This is just the beginning,” said Politz, a junior first baseman/designated hitter. “We’re going to be really good for a long time.”
Tampa Bay titles
A look at area teams who have won state baseball championships and how many titles they own:
9 Tampa Catholic
4 Clearwater Central Catholic
2 Alonso, Calvary Christian, Dunedin, Shorecrest
1 Berkeley Prep, Bishop Barry, Gaither, Hernando, Jefferson, Lakewood, Northeast, Pasco, Plant, Robinson, Seminole, St. Petersburg, Steinbrenner
Contact Rodney Page at email@example.com. Follow @RodneyHomeTeam.