TAMPA — The day started when Christian Suarez met Wade Boggs. It ended when he took part in an extra-inning team celebration after Bryan Perez’s first career walk-off home run.
Suarez, who threw the first six innings in Leto’s 4-1, eight-inning win against Winter Haven in a Class 7A region quarterfinal, said Wednesday is a day the senior right-handed pitcher will never forget.
“It might have been the best day of my life," said Suarez, 18, who earlier in the day became the first Leto player to receive the Wade Boggs Athletic Achievement Award — an honor established in 2006 by the Hillsborough County Commissioners that recognizes outstanding athletic, academic and community service achievements by a county high school player. Boggs, a Baseball Hall of Famer, is a graduate of Plant High.
“I got to shake Wade Boggs’ hand, and we just won a game on a walk-off home run . . . (against) a team that we played all summer, and last year we knocked out (in a regional semifinal)," Suarez said. “It was an awesome feeling, and I love it."
Suarez, a Stetson commit, allowed a second-inning run on a two-out, bases-loaded walk and left with the score tied after throwing 101 pitches. He struck out 12, walked five and scattered four hits before Javy Hernandez pitched the final two innings for the win.
Leto coach JJ Pizzio said Suarez will not pitch in Saturday’s district final rematch against Gaither — a team it went 2-1 against this season — because of the state’s pitch-count limit.
The Falcons (21-6), who defeated Winter Haven 2-1 in 12 innings in the 2018 playoffs, were held hitless for the first 4-2/3 innings before Brayan Cruz’s two-out single scored Tomas Lozano to tie the score.
Before Perez delivered his first career walk-off homer and fourth blast of the year, Hernandez stepped up. In the top of the eighth, Winter Haven (16-11) loaded the bases with one out on a single, fielder’s choice and an intentional walk. The Blue Devils’ Jorge Martinez then hit a slow roller toward first, but Hernandez, whose momentum was going toward the bag, picked up the ball and spun around to get a force-out at home. Hernandez got into more hot water when he started the following batter, Justin Hobbs, with three consecutive balls. But Hernandez bounced back with a pair of strikes, and got Hobbs to ground out to first base to end the threat.
In the bottom of the inning, Damien Breton reached first on a one-out fielding error by the Winter Haven first baseman. Hernandez followed with his only hit of the game, a single to right that moved Breton to third.
With Perez coming to the plate, Winter Haven went to its fourth pitcher. On the ensuing pitch, Perez socked his game-winning, three-run blast over the left-centerfield fence.
“That’s probably the best moment of my life," Perez said. “(The Winter Haven pitcher) was coming from the side. Coach told me to sit back and wait on my pitch. That’s exactly what I did."
Perez’s heroics didn’t surprise Suarez.
“Since the sixth inning, Bryan kept telling me he was going to win this game," Suarez said. “I had all the faith in the world in him, and I kept telling him, ‘Hey, let’s go.’
“I looked at (Perez) from the dugout when he was on deck (in the eighth), and he looked back and gave me a nod. I knew it was on, and we were going to win the game right then and there."
Perez was determined to make Suarez’s faith pay off.
“I struck out two times (earlier), and I never try to get myself down," Perez said. “So I was like it’s going to be my moment. I was hoping anybody could do it, but when the time came and it was me, I had to come up big for my team."
Pizzio said Leto and Winter Haven have a strong bond.
“They’re all our friends," Pizzio said. “We play each other all the time. We talk, we hang out, we go on trips together when we do some travel stuff. I talk to their players like they were my own players.
“We deserved this win."