Five former Pinellas athletes played important roles in the University of Tampa's drive to a second consecutive Division II baseball championship earlier this month.
The Spartans wrapped up the title on June 5 when they defeated Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo 7-5 in the final game of the double-elimination tournament.
In that game, third baseman Brian Zalatel, who starred at Seminole High and St. Petersburg Junior College, hit his third home run of the Spartans' four-game sweep. The others came with the bases loaded and with two men on.
Zalatel was signed by the San Francisco Giants last week. His success in the tournament and during the season came as no surprise to his high school coach, Bill Brinker.
"Brian has always been a good hitter," Brinker said. "He can hit the long ball. At first he had trouble with the long ball, but he worked on that. He also worked on his body building up. Now he's a strong, long-ball hitter. He did a good job for me all four years."
Zalatel was second on the UT team with 15 homers and 62 RBI. He batted .333 in the third spot in the lineup. He was named to the all-tournament team at the Division II championship in Montgomery, Ala., and named to the Baseball Coaches Association All-America first team for the second consecutive year.
The Giants assigned him to Everett, Wash., of the Northwest League.
Senior first baseman Jeff Stebbins (Northeast) batted .330 for the season, but .440 in the national tournament. In the championship game, he laid down a perfect squeeze bunt to score the Spartans' final run. Defensively, he excelled by stretching for a wide range of errant throws.
Senior left-handed pitcher Jim West (Boca Ciega), a transfer from Miami, tied for the most wins (10) this season against three losses. His ERA was 3.86, he had five complete games, and he led the team in opponents' batting average at .241. He beat Troy State 2-0 in the second game of the championship tournament.
Junior Jeff Gordon (Lakewood) started six games and completed three, posting a 3-3 record with one shutout. He made the Sunshine State Conference all-tournament team after beating Florida Atlantic in the championship game.
Junior Steve Ford (Pinellas Park) started the season at second, batting .229 with one homer and eight RBI. He finished as a relief pitcher, posting a 2.70 ERA in 6 innings.
Polk Community College: At Winter Haven, four products of Pinellas baseball helped the Vikings win 30 games against 13 defeats.
Joel Place (Seminole High), a transfer from Manatee Community College, batted .294 and pitched in the rotation. His record was 5-3 with a 4.06 ERA. "Joel was an outstanding team leader," said coach Bing Tyus. "He was the nucleus of the team."
Paul Reynolds (East Lake) was converted from third baseman, which he played last season, to catcher this season. He made the adjustment so successfully the Chicago Cubs drafted him in the 23rd round. He signed last week. The 6-foot-3 Reynolds led Polk CC with 53 RBI, had five homers and batted .325. "He's got a good body and he's sturdy," Tyus summarized.
R.J. Slutz (East Lake) played leftfield and batted .319. In the state junior college all-star game, the lefty excelled with three hits, including a double. He had a 3.60 grade-point average and is being recruited by the University of North Florida.
Kevin Bechtel (East Lake) was the team's stopper. The right-hander had a 2-0 record with three saves, and has been offered a scholarship by Appalachian State in North Carolina.