TAMPA — Jefferson and Jesuit played three close games against each other prior to Saturday night’s Class 6A region semifinal. But none of them were as dramatic as this one.
Down by two runs in the bottom of the seventh inning, the Tigers came back to defeat the Dragons 6-5. It’s the fourth time this season that Jesuit has managed to eke out a win against its rival.
It also means that the Tigers will host Dunnellon on Wednesday in the region final. Jefferson, the defending state champion, ends its season 14-13.
“They are the defending state champs, so this wasn’t going to be easy," Jesuit coach Miguel Menendez said. “We were going to get their best effort. We just made one more play than they did."
Here is how things worked out in the final inning: Jefferson led 5-3 and needed three outs to win. Jack Maroney flew out to leftfield to start the inning. Ethan Valdez singled and No. 9 hitter Bradke Lohry walked. Nick Rodriguez hit a towering flyball that landed in shallow centerfield for a hit that loaded the bases.
Jaiden Duarte was then relieved by Julian Vargas with a 2-0 count to Jimmy Clifford. Vargas ended up striking out Vargas for the second out. B.J. Graham, who was 2-for-4 prior to the at-bat, walked to make the score 5-4.
That brought up sophomore Cole Russo. The first two pitches were strikes. Russo then fouled off a pitch. The next pitch he hammered to rightfield. The ball hit the wall, which allowed the winning runs to score.
“I was just thinking about driving a fastball because I didn’t see any off-speed pitches," Russo said. “I found one in my wheelhouse and I drilled it. I wanted to be up in that situation. It was my time to shine."
For the first six innings, Jefferson was able to keep Jesuit from taking the lead. It looked as if Dragons’ designated hitter Marc DeGusipe would be the hero. With the bases loaded in the fifth, DeGusipe ripped a double that scored two runs and broke a 3-3 tie.
Jefferson pitcher Nick Perez, who relieved starter Miguel Denson in the second inning, was pitching well through six innings. But his pitch count forced the Dragons to use relievers in the seventh.
“The whole key for us was the seven, eight and nine guys in our order," Menendez said. “They turned the lineup over and gave us a shot. Our guys kept battling and never quit."
The Dragons put pressure on Jesuit right away. Oscar Galvez led off with a four-pitch walk. One out later Denson singled to put runners on the corners. An infield error on a DeGusipe grounder allowed the first run to score. Mario Lopez then singled to left to make it 2-0.
Jesuit (24-5) answered. Nick Rodriguez led off with a walk and was sacrificed to second by Clifford. Graham then roped a double to left that scored Rodriguez. The Tigers left runners on first and third to end the threat.
Jefferson pushed another one across in the third. Denson singled with one out and DeGusipe followed with a doubled to put runners on second and third. Lopez hit a deep flyball to center that allowed Denson to tag and score for a 3-1 lead.
And once again, Jesuit answered. Russo walked with two outs in the bottom of the third. Henry Politz then singled to right. The throw to try to pick Politz wandering off first was wild and Russo was able to score.
The Tigers tied the score in the fourth. Graham came through again when he singled with two outs to score Rodriguez. Russo was then intentionally walked to load the bases, but Politz fouled out to leftfield the end the threat.
In the sixth inning, Graham hit a deep fly to rightfield that cleared the fence but was called foul. That didn’t matter thanks to Russo’s heroics.
Games at 7 p.m. Wednesday
8A: Plant City at Seminole
8A: Tallahassee Chiles at Strawberry Crest
7A: Osceola at Venice
7A: Viera at Leto
6A: Cape Coral Mariner at Dunedin
6A: Dunnellon at Jesuit
5A: Melbourne CC at Lakewood