FORT MYERS — Every one of Jim Macaluso’s 38 years at King has ended without a state championship. Most, in fact, ended in the district tournament and more than a dozen came to a close in regionals.
Only three times in Macaluso’s storied career have the Lions come within a game of that elusive state title, including Wednesday’s appearance in the Class 6A semifinals at JetBlue Park.
This seemed like the spring for a breakthrough: King had a dominant, UF-bound ace; a lineup featuring six players batting over .316; and five motivated seniors who were blown out in this round as freshmen.
Alas, it was not meant to be for Macaluso and the Lions: They were nearly no-hit by 150-pound right-hander Austin Bizzle, King starter Brett Morales flirted with trouble a few too many times and several base-running errors cost them dearly in a 2-0 loss to Lynn Haven Mosley.
“I’m starting to really believe in destiny the more I coach,” the 65-year-old Macaluso said. “Sometimes things happen and sometimes they don’t happen.”
What happened: Bizzle improbably outpitched Morales, who was coming off a school-record 17 strikeouts in the Lions’ 4-1 victory over Mitchell in the region championship. Bizzle, an unimposing and unsigned senior, allowed only a disputed bloop hit over seven innings.
What didn’t happen: Flush with experience and offense en route to a team-record 16 straight wins, King (25-4) showed little of either in its return to the state tournament after a three-year absence.
Macaluso had worried about his team’s ability to handle the big-game atmosphere heading into the semifinals following that abysmal 2010 appearance, when the Lions lost 11-1 to Pace and generally didn’t seem prepared for the moment.
On Saturday, Macaluso attempted to simulate the experience for his team: the players showed up at their home stadium in the morning and went through the Florida High School Athletic Association’s detailed three-hour pre-game routine.
But those jitters still showed early, as third baseman Kevin Buckley bobbled a routine grounder in the top of the first and couldn’t make the throw to first base for the out. King, however, quickly recovered as Morales struck out the next batter, and catcher Jose Lopez threw out a runner at second base to end the inning.
Morales was dominant through the first four innings, allowing only a single and striking out seven of 13 hitters.
“We knew it was going to be like this,” Mosley coach Todd Harless said. “Facing a kid like Morales, we felt like our number was two or three (runs).”
Mosley finally threatened to break the scoreless tie in the fifth, when a sacrifice bunt moved runners over to second and third with only one out. But Morales got a groundout and strikeout to end the inning, seemingly a big momentum swing for the Lions.
“I knew if I could keep it at zero that we had a chance,” he said. “I thought things were going to start swinging our way.”
Instead, King squandered its scoring opportunities. After a leadoff walk and single to start the bottom of the fifth, the Lions flied out to center, struck out and had a runner picked off at third base to end the inning.
In the top of the sixth, Mosley finally got on the scoreboard with a RBI single from Bowen McGuffin — only Morales’ sixth earned run of the season.
That proved the difference as the Lions bungled another chance to score in the bottom of the sixth, when Buckley lined into a double play after Tanner Williams was doubled up at second base.
Mosley (28-3) added a run in the seventh on Jordan Larry’s RBI double and the Lions failed to respond in the bottom half, going 1-2-3 to end the game.
It was an abrupt, if impotent, ending for a team Macaluso called “as good a team as we’ve had here in our 38 years.”
Now in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career, Macaluso’s eyes reddened, then teared up as he admitted this loss hurt him more than any other.
“We know we had a chance,” he said. “And I still think we could’ve did it.”