LUTZ — Logan LaPace could hardly settle himself long enough to sleep, he was so ready to take the mound Thursday.
But when steady rain left Steinbrenner’s baseball field a virtual mud puddle, LaPace was forced to wait another couple of days to take the mound.
“I was really disappointed that I didn’t get to throw Thursday,” LaPace said. “I had never pitched in a big game like this and I just wanted to get out here and get after it.”
What’s a couple of days when LaPace and the Warriors have been waiting four years?
LaPace allowed only four hits in seven innings, Jesse Haney hit a two-run homer and Steinbrenner won its first playoff game in program history Saturday, 6-1 over Seminole in their Class 7A region quarterfinal.
Steinbrenner (24-2) will host Wiregrass Ranch on Tuesday night. Wiregrass Ranch, which lost to Steinbrenner in the 7A-9 district tournament final, beat Countryside 5-2 Saturday.
The Warriors had never advanced out of the district tournament in the past three years, losing one-run games in their past two semifinal appearances.
Things are different this year, with four-year varsity members like LaPace, Haney and Chase Turner leading the way. The Warriors rolled through much of the regular season and the district tournament, even moving to No. 19 in MaxPreps’ poll of the top 25 teams in the country.
Steinbrenner essentially took all the drama out of the matchup in the first three innings, getting a boost from an offense that’s now averaging more than nine runs per game.
Haney doubled in the Warriors’ first run in the first inning and followed up with a two-run shot over leftfield fence in the third, giving Steinbrenner a 5-1 lead.
“It was just a 3-2 count and I knew he had to come to me,” Haney said of Seminole starter Nick Nolan. “I didn’t know what it was until I got to first base and then I saw it went over the fence.”
Nolan, a Hillsborough Community College signee, was removed from the game in the fourth inning after Alex Hanson’s RBI single.
It was a disappointing finish for Seminole (20-8), which had won six of its past seven before falling 3-0 to Countryside in the 7A-10 district final.
“We ended on a downward trend,” said Seminole second-year coach Jeff Pincus. “We just didn’t get it done.”
The Warhawks were the first team to defeat Jesuit, then ranked No. 1 in at least two national polls. And it was Nolan who pitched them to that victory.
But their senior ace didn’t have enough to hold off Steinbrenner’s powerful offense, and LaPace finished strong over the final three innings.
At one point, LaPace retired 11 straight batters before allowing a leadoff single in the seventh. Then he got out the next three hitters for the win.
7A: Pitching change shuts down Countryside
CLEARWATER — With the score tied at 2, Wiregrass Ranch coach Jeff Swymer made a tough decision to pull starter Zach Drury after just a third of an inning.
But Drury’s lefty younger brother, Austin, took over and shut out Countryside the rest of the way as the Bulls continued their first-ever playoff march with a 5-2 Class 7A region quarterfinal win Saturday.
“We preached about changing the culture in the program, and now we’re in the playoffs,” said Swymer, in his fourth year helming the team. “It’s going to help our program. It’s going to help us down the road. It’s huge for us.”
Countryside starter Jake Mielock found himself in a jam right away after allowing Marcus Guzman’s rightfield single in the top of the first, then welcoming him to second base after a wild pitch to Zach Drury.
Mielock then walked junior shortstop Michael Campoamor to put runners on the corners with two outs for Shane Bucenell. The first baseman hit a grounder straight to shortstop Charlie Skantze, but his throw went wide of first baseman Christian Townsend, allowing the first two runs to score.
Zach Drury came out in the bottom of the inning already up 2-0, but Skantze made up for his error by slamming a double on Drury’s first pitch. Zach Taylor’s groundout moved Skantze to third, then he went home on a Drury wild pitch.
Drury loaded the bases after that, walking Bobby Krayer and giving the Cougars a chance to take a big lead with just one out.
“When you’re No. 1 comes in, and for whatever reason, has a mechanical breakdown, you have to have guys behind him,” Swymer said. “(Austin) was clutch as heck today.”
Zach Drury didn’t let his troubled pitching outing get him down. He came roaring right back in the second inning to hit a two-run, two-out single that put Wiregrass Ranch ahead for good. The older Drury finished 2-for-4 with two RBIs.
It was lights out from there as Austin Drury pitched five innings, scattering four hits and striking out five. He gave way to Ryan Girard, who allowed just a single hit, a pair of walks and chalked up a strikeout in a marathon game that lasted just under three hours.
“These guys are fighters, and there was no question that we were going to rally,” Countryside coach Kemo O’Sullivan said. “We just didn’t get it. We didn’t have that bounce.”
Guzman finished 2-for-2 with an RBI for Wiregrass Ranch (18-9), but he may not be with the team when they face Steinbrenner in the regional semifinals next week. He was ejected in the fourth inning after an RBI double. Making a huge turn on second base, he was caught in a rundown, and collided with Townsend, who had come in as the relief pitcher.
Swymer said he would have to wait for the Florida High School Athletic Association to decide if the senior outfielder will play.
Skantze was 2-for-4 for Countryside (17-11).
Even with the win, Swymer said his team still has some work to do in practice Monday.
“We made every inning interesting, I’ll tell you that,” Swymer said. “I don’t know if our pitchers know what a first-pitch strike is, but they are going to get reminded on Monday. We got behind on the counts, and we’re thankful that they popped some balls on 3-0 and 2-1 counts where they were aggressive.
“We got to be better.”
Michael Hinman, Times correspondent