TAMPA ― For the first four innings of Leto’s Class 7A region final against Viera, it seemed as if the state semifinal berth was the Hawks’ to lose.
The visiting team’s bats were swinging from the very start, and Viera, which took a two-run lead in the third inning, had 14 base runners in the game.
But Leto, a young team that’s been riddled with injuries all season, didn’t seem to sweat it. And there’s a good reason for that, coach JJ Pizzio said.
“I know this might sound bad, but when you’re really not that good, things like that don’t bother you,” he said. “You just keep playing baseball. You don’t get up, you don’t get down. You just keep on grinding and grinding.”
And eventually, the perseverance paid off.
Leto scored a run in the fifth frame, before Brayan Cruz drove home the tying run in the sixth on a sacrifice fly. But as Viera attempted to make a play at home, the third baseman overthrew the catcher, allowing Leto’s game-winning run to score on the error. Closer Franklyn Hernandez struck out four Hawks in the final 1 ⅔ innings to deliver the Falcons’ 3-2 come-from-behind victory and their second straight state semifinal appearance.
While Viera had nine hits on the night, Leto only had one — a second-inning single from Bryan Perez — through the first four frames. Leto starter Christian Suarez gave up three singles in the third, and Viera came out of that inning with a 2-0 lead.
But while the Leto defense bent a little bit, it didn’t break. After Leto gave up the runs, Suarez and the defense got out of a bases-loaded jam to end the inning without any more damage done. Leto (23-6) would strand 12 batters before the night was over.
Perhaps Viera (21-9) got a little bit comfortable with their two-run lead. That, Pizzio said, played right into the Falcons’ strategy.
In the fifth, Leto seemed to have figured out Viera starter Eric Allen. Cruz doubled, advanced to third on a wild pitch, and was driven in on a hard-hit infield single from Mike Comacho to close the gap. That set up Cruz’s sixth-inning, game-tying sac fly and the go-ahead run scored on the Viera error.
“The way that we hit, we try to work the pitcher into getting comfortable with certain pitches. If we hit a groundball off a guy, we know by the second or third time he throws that pitch, we’re going to hit ‘em,” said Pizzio. “When they get comfortable, we get tougher.”
Because of the jams Leto was getting itself into, Suarez’s pitch count climbed, and Pizzio replaced him in the sixth with Hernandez. The left-hander did his job, giving up a double to the first Hawk he faced, but retiring the next five batters in order.
It wasn’t a perfectly executed game, Suarez admitted, but for Leto, it was perfectly in character.
“Our last few games have been like this. They’ve come down to the wire,” Suarez said. “It’s just a testament to who we are. We’re Hispanic baseball players. We don’t give up.”
At Hammond Stadium, Fort Myers
Class 8A: Strawberry Crest vs. TBD, 4 p.m. May 29
Class 8A: Plant City vs. McArthur, 7 p.m. May 29
Class 7A: Doral Academy vs. Leto, 7 p.m. May 31
Class 6A: Jesuit vs. Miami Springs, 1 p.m. May 31
Class 4A: Calvary Christian vs. Fort Lauderdale Calvary Christian, 7 p.m. May 24