As is the case most seasons, the Tampa Bay area is chock full of quality starting high school pitchers. The top teams tend to have that bona fide ace who can take the mound in a must-win game an come through.
What is a bit unusual this season is the amount of power hitters in the area. Springstead’s Jiovel Lantigua leads the way as districts start next week with 12 home runs, which leads the state. Bloomingdale’s Brock Wilken is tied for third in the state with nine. Dylan Eskew of Sickles has six.
Lake Fisher of Dunedin leads Pinellas County with five home runs, which may not sound as impressive until you consider Pinellas teams tend to play on larger fields.
While the relatively new composite bats were meant to deaden the ball a bit, there are still players who can clear the fence.
Having a power hitter in the middle of the lineup is a luxury for any team. Pitching depth will be a bit more important in the playoffs now once there are two region games in a week. So a big bat that can turn a mistake into runs will be an advantage.
Lantigua showed signs of being one of those hitters last season with five home runs as a junior. Coming off his summer ball season, where he saw quality pitching, he started hitting right away for the Eagles.
He hasn’t slowed down much.
“I set a high goal from the season before but I never thought I would get this high,” said Lantigua, who will play baseball at UMass-Lowell in the fall. “This is a lot better season from last year. I made a lot of adjustments. I saw some things I could change, like being calmer in the swing. It turned me into a better hitter.”
Springstead has won 20 games and is the top team in Class 6A, District 6. The Eagles have a good chance of going far in the playoffs. To be sure, opponents will know about Lantigua. He already sees a change in how pitchers deal with him.
“I’m seeing a little bit more off speed now,” he said. “They are trying to catch me a bit off balance.”
Like Lantigua, who is 6 feet, 245 pounds, Bloomingdale’s Wilken is also built like a home run hitter. The junior is 6-3, 200 pounds, but he didn’t start his high school career as a home run hitter. As a freshman, he was mostly a singles hitter.
His uncle and Bloomingdale head coach, Kris Wilken, got him to change his mind-set.
“I got him convinced that he needed to be a home run hitter,” the coach said. “He always had the power, he just needed to work on hitting the ball in the air.”
So that’s what he did. He went from hitting one home run last season to nine.
“I’m a little bit bigger kid than usual so we wanted to use that leverage,” Brock said. “We wanted to use my strength and power to elevate balls. Instead of hitting balls in the gap, they are going a little bit farther now.”
Wilken, a Wake Forest commit, is hitting .446, so he is not just a home run hitter. He is also surrounded in the lineup by above-average hitters like Bryce Hazzard, Dominic Gonnella, Jackson Hobbs and Kyle Merkle. Merkle has five home runs.
Bloomingdale has hit 18 home runs as a team.
As the No. 2 hitter, it’s hard to pitch around Wilken.
“The people we have in the lineup has really helped me get better,” he said. “I’m seeing a lot of pitches to hit. I have to attribute my success to them.”
Dunedin’s Fisher sees himself as more of an accidental home run hitter. He has always had power, but this year the ball has cleared the fence more often.
“I need to go up there thinking about hitting line drives,” said the senior, who is committed to Eastern Florida State College. “If the ball goes out, it goes out. But I’m not thinking about home runs. I did work my butt off in the weight room this past offseason, and I think that’s made a bit of a difference. This year it seems like the balls that I don’t think I hit very hard are going farther.”
Pitching may still dominate the playoffs. But if the regular season is any indication, look for some long balls. The area’s best team for the past two years, Calvary Christian, has hit 15 home runs. Dunedin has 14.
“We haven’t had that many in a season in a long time,” Dunedin coach Ron Sexton said.
It’s been that kind of season.
Contact Rodney Page at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @RodneyHomeTeam.