FORT MYERS — Hours before their graduation ceremony Wednesday night at the Straz Center in Tampa came a potential milestone moment of another sort, albeit with cap and glove.
The Jesuit High baseball team’s seniors were hoping to graduate into school immortality, seeking to become the first back-to-back state champions in the program’s rich history.
Instead, pain and circumstance prevailed.
“Definitely we didn’t play the cleanest game,” coach Miguel Menendez said. “And I think that’s the frustration.”
Besieged by five errors and a 90-minute lightning delay, the Tigers (27-5) couldn’t muster a big hit down the stretch in an eight-inning 8-5 loss to Plantation American Heritage (21-6) in the Class 5A title game at Hammond Stadium.
Senior closer Derek Westfall, who worked three scoreless innings before the delay in the middle of the seventh, got the ball again afterward. The Patriots, all of whom had seen his slider-heavy repertoire at least once, responded with three runs off three hits and a walk in the top of the eighth. The costliest: an RBI double by Andrew Ortiz, followed by Zack Wilson’s two-run single.
Patriots junior Antonio Turco-rivas held Jesuit scoreless in the bottom of the inning to seal things.
“I told (Westfall) he deserved a better fate, and that’s all on me,” said Menendez, whose program was seeking its seventh state crown and third since 2019. “I shouldn’t have run him back out there. That’s the one that’s going to eat at me probably for the rest of my life. It is what it is.”
Preceding the delay was a dizzying assortment of sloppiness and opportunism. The Tigers built a 4-0 early lead on Jacob Lozano’s RBI bunt single in the second and a three-run third aided by two Patriots errors. Designated hitter Zane Pestalozzi’s two-out RBI double in the third was Jesuit’s lone hit of the inning.
American Heritage got all four runs back on FSU signee Spencer Butt’s grand slam in the top of the fourth off Tigers left-hander Wes Mendes, who was making his second start in a title game. Setting up Butt’s blast was a Tigers infield error and consecutive singles by No. 9 hitter Chris Levy and leadoff batter Jordan Rich.
American Heritage catcher Mateo Serna walked after Butt’s slam, prompting Mendes’ exit. Lucas Ramirez — son of 12-time big-league All-Star and World Series champion Manny Ramirez — reached on an outfield error before the Patriots drew consecutive walks off reliever Wilson Andersen to load the bases. Serna ultimately scored on a wild pitch to give his team a 5-4 lead.
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“(Mendes) deserved a better fate than what he got, especially for what he’s meant to this program over his three years,” Menendez said. “I hate that it ended the way it did but proud of our guys again for fighting back and continuing to battle.”
The battle stretched into the fifth, when Tigers junior Noah Sheffield — the son of Tampa native, nine-time All-Star and World Series champion Gary Sheffield — reached on a one-out error and ultimately scored on a Pestalozzi single to tie the score.
Jesuit had only one more hit the rest of the way.
“I really wanted to finish this game,” said Westfall, headed to Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I felt like I had the same stuff (as before the delay), but I missed a couple of pitches. The second time through the lineup, they had been seeing my pitches, so it is what it is. A couple of big hits in a row and they scored a couple of clutch runs.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls