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District baseball: Leto sticks to plan, Gaither ekes out win

The teams will meet once again for the district title, which the Falcons claimed last year.

TAMPA — For the first time all year, King scored against Leto.

The Falcons didn’t flinch.

Jose Santos’ RBI single capped a two-run fourth — giving top-seeded Leto the lead for good — and the Falcons pulled away from No. 4 King for an 8-2 victory Tuesday in a Class 7A, District 8 district semifinal.

Leto (19-6) will play second-seeded Gaither on Thursday in a rematch of the 2018 district finale won by the Falcons, 4-3, in nine innings. The host Cowboys (12-11) advanced with a 7-6 win over No. 3 Hillsborough (8-15) in the other semifinal.

King (7-18) dropped a pair of regular-season games against Leto by identical 6-0 scores, but the Lions scored their first run vs. the Falcons in 18 innings for a 1-0 fourth-inning lead. Zarrian Brinson’s two-out double to right scored Matthew Johnson, who had walked and stole second.

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The deficit seemed to wake up Leto in the bottom of the inning against King starter Zan Rose, who had thrown only 37 pitches through the first three frames.

Damien Breton led off with a single and advanced to second on an errant Rose pickoff throw to first, the first of five King errors. One out later, Bryan Perez tied the score with a double to center. Santos followed with a run-scoring single to put Leto in front the rest of the way.

“I was thinking middle (to) away, so when (Rose) threw the pitch, I stayed back and got it to the right side,” said Santos, Leto’s junior catcher.

Leto senior starter and winner Christian Suarez made the lead stand up, and the Falcons gave him plenty of support with a four-run fifth — sparked by a Javy Hernandez two-run single — and a two-run sixth.

Suarez threw three-hit ball and allowed only one run into the seventh, when he was removed after 101 pitches and allowing singles to King’s first two batters. Julio Acosta got the final three outs.

“King has some guys that are dangerous, and I told Christian there’s a couple of guys we have to be careful with,” Leto coach JJ Pizio said. "(Brinson) came up at in an opportune situation, and put a great swing on Christian.

“But I guess it woke us up in a sense (and) put a little bit of urgency into our bats. We had a few guys step up and did what they’re supposed to do. Nothing too great, kids just doing what they’re supposed to do. ... Be a teammate, work hard, and we end up getting the victory.”

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Falling behind didn’t faze Pizzio.

"I looked at the beginning of the game,” he said. “We only had a couple guys that had struck out, so the other guys were putting good swings (on Rose). Our theory is we’ve got to get to a guy before our third at-bat. If he gets us the first time, we can’t allow him to get us a second time. But if he does, there’s no way we can let a guy get us three times.”

Santos was batting in a different spot in the order after Leto lost starting shortstop RJ Gutierrez two weeks ago to a season-ending knee injury.

“(Santos) has helped out greatly,” the Leto coach said. “He’s a good line-drive hitter, a good contact guy. He hadn’t been hitting in the five spot (and) we had to move the lineup around.”

Santos had two hits along with Coltin Pizzio and Breton.

“I work hard, and we focus every single time,” Santos said. “(Christian) pitched a great game. He hit his spots (and) did what he was supposed to do.”

King starting catcher Jacob Cordell had a suspenseful game. He missed half the contest after injuring his right hand on a foul ball, then got ejected while catching in the seventh in a verbal dispute with the home-plate umpire.

Gaither got a superb relief appearance from Austin Grause in its win against Hillsborough. After both teams scored five runs in the first, Grause replaced starter CJ Hanson and hurled 5-1/3 innings of one-run ball. He allowed five hits for the win.

Derek Crum replaced Grause with runners on first and third in the seventh, and got the final two outs. He struck out Dwayne House and got Terence Doston to hit a soft liner into short center that was caught by second baseman K’Wality Williams.

Williams’ two-out, two-run single in the second snapped a 5-all tie for Gaither. The base hit scored Crum and Frank Perez, who had reached on walks and advanced to scoring position on stolen bases.

Hillsborough scored its final run in the fourth on a Juan Jaime-Nunez RBI double.