CLEARWATER — The way things were going, Dunedin’s chances of a Class 6A title could have ended with Game 1.
During batting practice Wednesday before region quarterfinal play, standout shortstop Ray Sass saw a bad hop pop him in the nose, causing concern of a break. In the second inning of its game against visiting Sebring, sophomore Connor Russell saw his attempted bunt deflect off his bat and hit him square on the helmet, knocking him out of the game with a possible concussion. Then junior catcher Tristan Morton had his thumb pop out, something he amazingly was able to repair himself and continue playing.
Instead of falling apart from the negative events, the Falcons stayed strong, battling their way to a 6-2 victory behind starting pitcher Tyler Vogel and a persistent offensive attack.
“We had some things develop that a less experienced team might have panicked after," Dunedin coach Ron Sexton said. “But we’ve been here a lot — this is the fifth straight year we’ve been in this position — and experience is the one thing we really have as an advantage over other teams.”
That familiarity with pressure situations also stood Dunedin (20-8) well after the Blue Streaks (11-15) scratched out an ice-breaking two-out run in the top of the second inning on No. 9 hitter Zack Doorlag’s RBI single.
On the first pitch of the bottom of the second, senior cleanup hitter Lake Fisher deposited Blayne Huter’s offering well over the right-centerfield fence for his sixth home run of the season to tie the score. Jonathan Hubbard followed with a flair single to leftfield then scored on sophomore Marcus Brodil’s one-out triple up the right-centerfield gap. The Falcons never trailed after that barrage.
When asked how soothing it is as a pitcher to have that kind of support, Vogel said, “It's great, actually. I love how our hitters battle. Even when they get two strikes, they still get hits. And the more runs we score, the more games we're going to win.”
Taking the lead took some of the steam out of Sebring's attack as did Vogel's enhanced command. After getting four hits the first time through the order, the Blue Streaks went hitless with a walk the second go-round with Vogel picking up five of his nine strikeouts.
“I was just making some little adjustments,” the senior said. “I was falling off to the side (of the mound) then I wasn’t. Once I found my rhythm, found my mechanics, I could just keep going and prep for the next batter. I have to be better than them.”
For the most part Vogel was, going six innings and throwing 100 pitches in yielding two runs and five hits while walking four and hitting a batter.
“He started with a broken wrist and is coming into his prime now,” Sexton said. “He's so efficient, he can locate and recover, and he fields his position well. He's the best postseason pitcher I've ever had by far.”
Offensively, Dunedin wore out Sebring’s pitching and defense with its constant pressure. After waiting out three straight third-inning walks, Jonathan Hubbard’s second single of the game plated Sass. In the fourth, the Falcons jumped on three errors and a wild pitch — all with two outs — to score three times and put the game away.
Senior lefty Dominic Baratta came on and closed out the victory with a solid seventh, allowing only a walk.
Now the Falcons will look to mimic a path from 2017 that eventually led to the state semifinals. As on Wednesday, Dunedin got past Sebring, then had a meeting with Lake Wales in the region semifinals.
“Playing (the five-time district champion Highlanders) is an annual event,” Sexton said of Saturday’s road encounter. “Don Bridges is a great coach and they know us so well, just like we know them. We’re definitely going to have our hands full.”