LAND O’ LAKES — As the innings progressed, so did the scrutiny on the pitch counts. In a balancing act, visiting Jefferson and Land O’ Lakes had to weigh the importance of extending their seasons beyond Wednesday, while also knowing the winner would play again Saturday.
For the Dragons, the balance tilted tremendously in their favor in the top of the 10th inning. Miguel Denson, a sophomore who had just three extra-base hits coming in, walloped a double to center, scoring the go-ahead run, and Jefferson (14-12) plated a pair more for a 5-2 victory in the Class 6A region quarterfinals.
“We needed that right there,” said senior Nick Perez, the pitcher who took the mantle from stellar starter Michael Dominguez, tossing the final four frames after Dominguez’s pitch count neared the territory that would have removed him from the rest of region play.
But there was still drama. Perez entered the bottom of the 10th near the 60-pitch mark, which would have taken him out of this Saturday’s region semi at Jesuit. But Perez sizzled through the frame, and on what would have likely been his last batter anyway, retired Dakota Harris on one pitch.
“They would have pulled me at 60, so that was it for me,” said Perez, who likely will get the start Saturday as the defending Class 6A state champ Dragons try and take down Jesuit, which has beaten them three times in as many tries.
Though Jefferson came in barely above .500, the Dragons looked in control early thanks to Dominguez and his low-90s fastball and a pair of early runs. A routine play became a critical error to start the second, and senior Marc Degusipe (double) and Yaidel Perez (RBI single) followed with hits to make it 1-0. A hit-by-pitch and bases-loaded walk (earned by Oscar Galvez) doubled the lead.
But Gators starter Nick Jennings would only allow one more hit, striking out 10 over five innings. While Dominguez cruised for the most part, he faltered in the fifth allowing the Gators (19-6) to tie the score. Consecutive walks to Brett Gwinn and Garrett Weaver preceded a bunt single by Chris Ferguson — the Gators’ first hit — and Spencer Stephens’ fielder’s choice groundout made it 2-1. Harris followed with a tying RBI single though the Gators ran into an out on the base paths, crucially.
Brian Holiday relieved Jennings, and after walking the first man he faced and giving up a stolen base, got out of trouble thanks to a poor Dragons bunt and a strike ’em out, throw ’em out.
The momentum favored the hosts when Dominguez, nearing the 105-pitch mark that would have kept him off the mound until the state semis, walked Gwinn starting the seventh. In came Perez to get a big-time pair of strikeouts, the latter coupled with catcher Mario Lopez throwing out the runner trying to steal.
Holiday, invaluably at the time, only need five pitches to get through the ninth, which would have made him eligible against Jesuit had he been lifted. But he stayed in, hit Tony Zavala with a pitch, then gave up a Lopez sac bunt that hit right on the first-base bag ahead of Denson’s big hit. Lopez had gone 0-for-4 with four strikeouts.
Perez finished the job, striking out seven, and is ready to go as Jefferson sets its aim on Jesuit.
“I just have to hit my spots, and don’t overthrow like I did (in the district finals),” he said. “Those first three games don’t matter. This next one is the one that counts.”