TAMPA — The first time Durant and Wharton met this season, the Cougars were up 7-0 and feeling pretty good about their chances. Then Wharton scored eight unanswered runs late in a come-from-behind stunner.
As Durant prepared to take on the Wildcats in Friday’s Class 7A region baseball quarterfinal, outfielder Dean Hotz admitted that game was on the Cougars’ minds. “It really fired us up,” the senior said. “We wanted that win.”
By turning the tables, Durant got exactly that.
The Cougars broke open a tie game in the top of the seventh inning, scoring five runs on four hits to beat Wharton 8-3. Durant will play Sarasota Riverview on Wednesday in the region semifinals.
Wharton (21-5) struck first Friday, scoring on a wild pitch in the first inning, but Durant had two runs of its own on back-to-back RBI singles in the third to take its first lead of the night. When Durant (20-5) extended it to 3-1 on an RBI single from freshman catcher Carlos Morales, Wharton sent in junior reliever Evan Chrest.
For two frames, Chrest wasted no time, striking out six Cougars in a row. Wharton, meanwhile, tied it at three.
The Cougars, Hotz said, needed to solve Chrest.
“He got us with the fastball and slider ... but we made some adjustments,” said Hotz, who went 2-for-4 with two RBIs. “Scoot up on the plate, watch the slider. If he hangs it, pull it. Look (for the) fastball and shoot it the other way.”
And that seemed to do the trick.
Sophomore infielder Aidan Welsh drew a leadoff walk in the top of the seventh. A ground out followed by a nicely laid bunt from senior second baseman Luke Scolaro put him on third.
Then Hotz, equipped with a new strategy against Chrest, came through with the RBI single for the go-ahead run. A pair of hits and a Wildcat error drove in several more for a little insurance.
Senior right-hander Alex Canney — in for Durant starter Sean Hermann, who gave up three hits and struck out five in six complete innings — got the last three outs in relief to end the game, sending Durant to a district championship rematch with Sarasota Riverview.
“You’ve got to play that small ball. We’re not always great at it, but fortunately it played a good part, and we got more confidence,” Durant coach Butch Valdes said. “Then they started swinging the bat, and one thing led to another.”
Mitchell means business
NEW PORT RICHEY — Mitchell’s game plan was clear: play with unbridled aggression, create opportunities and rattle the opposition, riding the resulting energy to an early lead and, hopefully, a victory.
In Friday’s Class 6A region opener, the Mustangs turned up the heat on visiting St. Petersburg and the Green Devils wilted, especially in the opening innings. With junior Ashton Crowther owning the mound, Mitchell rolled to a convincing 10-0, six-inning victory.
“It’s good to see that at the beginning of the game when one person gets it going, and it’s great to see everyone that follows brings that energy,” leadoff batter and momentum creator Aidan Miller said. “Just getting a lead is huge in high school baseball.”
Miller (two hits and a walk) and senior Ezra Brennan (single, walk, hit by pitch) were the perfect table-setters for Mitchell (22-6), reaching base in all eight plate appearances and scoring five runs. Miller’s first-pitch line single up the middle set the tone on a night where the hosts’ hustle and determination, highlighted by eight stolen bases, created four St. Pete errors in the first two innings.
“Everybody knows Aidan Miller,” Mitchell coach Howard Chittum said of the sophomore who leads the squad in virtually every offensive category. “He’s a prolific hitter, one of a kind.
“And Ezra’s just an exceptional athlete. He’s the spark that lights the fire for our team. With deep playoff runs in football and the success we’ve had in baseball, moments are never too big for him.”
Additional production came from junior Zach Crawford (successful suicide squeeze and an RBI sacrifice fly), classmate Jace Trautner (two-run single, two walks, two runs scored) and senior James Hill (two hits).
With production like this, Crowder was able to settle in and let an effective curveball silence the bats of St. Pete (14-9). The lefty yielded just one hit — a Matt Rieth second-inning single — over five innings while walking three and striking out eight. The Green Devils only got one runner into scoring position all night.
“I trust my curve to throw it for first-pitch strikes, in 3-and-0 counts,” said Crowder. “Once Aidan got that hit and I got past my first-inning struggle, I felt more comfortable. And the defense, especially (centerfielder Maguire Anderson’s) diving catch (to start the third inning) really helped out.”
“We gave it our all, got some great motivation and great momentum going into next week,” Miller concluded. “Whether we play (potential semifinal opponents) Bloomingdale or Gaither, it should be a great game.”
The Mustangs will travel to take on Bloomingdale, a come-from-behind 7-4 winner over Gaither, on Wednesday.
7A: Durant 8, Wharton 3
7A: Sarasota Riverview 4, Sickles 3
6A: Mitchell 10, St. Petersburg 0
6A: Bloomingdale 7, Gaither 4
6A: Winter Haven 3, Plant City 2
6A: Bartow 3, Strawberry Crest 0
4A: Rockledge 1, Hernando 0
2A: Bishop McLaughlin 2, Keswick Christian 0
2A: Northside Christian 4, Academy at the Lakes 3
2A: Seffner Christian 8, Brevard HEAT 0