CLEARWATER — Kevin Kearns found a playoff correlation he could get behind.
“We’ve been knocked out the past few years because the other team put pressure on us,” the nine-year veteran coach said of a Dunedin program playing in its sixth straight region final. “We decided we’re going to do it to them this year.”
In Wednesday’s Class 4A region final at Jack Russell Stadium, there were moments when his philosophy didn’t pay off. The Falcons got caught several times by Cape Coral Mariner, getting picked off of bases and seeing a sixth-inning rundown turned into a double play.
But by then Dunedin’s extreme aggression had already paid dividends in a three-run, first-inning explosion that the visiting Tritons couldn’t overcome. Just as in 2019, the Falcons propelled themselves to a state semifinal date in Fort Myers with a victory over Mariner, this time a 6-3 verdict.
The die was cast early. With one out and Marcus Brodil on first base after a single, fellow senior Dylan Oester drove a double deep down the leftfield line. Putting the defense of the Tritons (17-13) to the test early, Kearns sent Brodil home even though the cutoff man was fielding a throw as the senior rounded the bag.
“Yeah, I was a little surprised,” Oester said. “I saw (Brodil) go and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, he might be out.’ ”
But the relay throw sailed over the catcher’s head and to the backstop, allowing Brodil to trot home and Oester to move to third.
“It’s a bang-bang play,” Kearns said. “They’ve got to make that play. If they make it, then good for them. If not, we got the run.”
Senior catcher Connor Russell followed with a base hit up the middle to plate Oester with junior courtesy runner Austin Lederhouse stealing second and moving to third on senior Noah Bukolt’s infield single. Dunedin got aggressive again by sending Bukolt to second but the return throw to the plate beat the hustling Lederhouse. The Tritons’ catcher, however, muffed the throw, allowing the junior to slide in safely for a huge 3-0 lead.
“This whole postseason, we’ve been coming out early and scoring in our first at-bat,” Kearns said. “The Wesley Chapel (regional semifinal) was the only game we hadn’t, so that certainly proves well for us.”
Dunedin (18-11) got the Mariner defense to crack again in the fifth. With sophomore designated hitter Bryan Loos (single) and sophomore pitcher Trey Beard (hit by pitch) on board, freshman Greyson McNeill laid down a solid sacrifice bunt that saw the throw to first sail into McNeill’s path to the bag, with the collision dislodging the ball, allowing Loos to score. An infield error loaded the sacks for Oester, who drove a base hit to rightfield, scoring a pair.
“(Pitcher Michael Scalise) threw me a little inside and I was able to put it between the first and second basemen,” Oester said. “If I flew out or anything like that, we’d get a run in. It worked out for me.”
Through it all, Falcon lefty hurler Beard (six strikeouts) dealt deftly and effectively, giving up just one hit through five innings before running out of gas in the sixth and yielding three runs.
“I’m not going to be the kid that goes out there a throws 90-plus mph,” said Beard, who was bouncing back from a back strain sustained last week. “I feel like hitting your spots is more important than velocity. Work the outside corner, the inside corner, mix those up and it’s really hard to hit.”
With the bases juiced and the tying run at first, junior Jessiah Branch not only squashed the threat but retired the four batters he faced to earn the save.
Next up for Dunedin will be a Monday night date with North Broward Prep, which pulled out a 2-1 extra-innings win over Miami Mater Lakes Academy.
Region baseball finals
Class 5A: Jefferson 6, Land O’ Lakes 5
Class 5A: Naples Barron Collier 3, Osceola 2
Class 4A: Dunedin 6, Cape Coral Mariner 3
Class 4A: Nature Coast 6, Orlando Bishop Moore 1
Class 3A: Orlando First Academy 7, Berkeley Prep 1
State baseball semifinals
CenturyLink Sports Complex, Fort Myers
Class 7A: Durant vs. Port Orange Spruce Creek, 10 a.m. Friday
Class 6A: Bloomingdale vs. Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer, 7 p.m. Friday
Class 5A: Jefferson vs. Lynn Haven Mosley, 10 a.m. Tuesday
Class 4A: Dunedin vs. North Broward Prep 7 p.m. Monday
Class 4A: Nature Coast vs. Citra North Marion, 4 p.m. Monday