TAMPA — Jefferson junior reliever Julian Vargas had had just two plate appearances this season prior to Wednesday’s Class 5A region final against Land O’ Lakes. But if coach Spencer Nunez was to put senior starting pitcher Matthew Johnson back in the lineup, Vargas would have had to come out of the game.
So in the bottom of the seventh inning, the score tied at five, Vargas stepped up when the Dragons desperately needed to make something happen.
“All year he’s been our closer, and we weren’t going to (take him out). So we took our chances,” Nunez said about sending Vargas to the plate. “Sometimes you’ve got to roll the dice in this kind of game.”
The risk paid off. In an instant, Vargas hit a line drive to rightfield, sending the runner on first to third base. Junior catcher Alejandro Montada followed with an RBI single to deliver a 6-5 walk-off victory to the Dragons.
“He was throwing only curveballs. He’d been doing that since the last inning. You just pick up a pattern, and you know what’s going to come,” Montada said. “Do your job, get the man in, win a ball game.”
Land O’ Lakes took a 2-0 lead in the first inning as the Gators (19-9) took advantage of a couple Jefferson (19-10) throwing errors early, but the Dragons tied it in the second with an RBI single and an RBI groundout from senior third baseman Yaidel Perez.
The Gators scored in the fourth on yet another Jefferson error, but the Dragons again had a response, tying it up for the second time on another RBI from Perez.
“We tell them all year, ‘If you get hit with a little bit of adversity, you’ve got to hit it back harder,’ ” Nunez said. “These guys are really taking that advice to heart.”
In the fifth frame, it was the Dragons who capitalized on a throwing error when Land O’ Lakes overthrew the second baseman on a rundown and the Jefferson runner scored. Jefferson added another run on a sacrifice fly from Montada.
When Johnson came out of the game in the sixth, the Gators broke through. Three walks loaded the bases, and a wild pitch and RBI single from Land O’ Lakes right-handed pitcher Brian Holiday tied it up for the third time.
But Vargas shined in the seventh. The junior sat the Gators down in order in the top of the inning before helping the Dragons seal the deal on the other side.
And despite his inexperience at the plate, Vargas wasn’t worried.
“My teammates told me, ‘You’re a pitcher only. Just go up there and have fun,’” he said about his big at-bat. “That’s what I did.”
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