Mavericks Come Back Over Gulf Coast To Return To State
When the celebration began, Aaron Soto had no idea what had gotten into his teammates.
It was not until he was at the bottom of a team hogpile in the infield before he realized that the Mavericks had just won.
In a game that played out more like a chess match, it was catcher Michael Hernandez who applied the checkmate move that sent host Archbishop McCarthy to a 4-2 victory over Gulf Coast in Friday’s Class 6A regional championship.
To set things up, the senior catcher had taken a bit of liberty with his left-handed closer Soto.
“I called him out to the mound and I asked him what inning we were in,” Soto explained, after he initiated a quick conference to the mound after the Sharks were able to bring the winning run to the plate in the top of the seventh inning.
“He told me to relax, that we still had one more inning. Then he called for a pitch outside, and then he went to first and got the guy out. Everyone just started running towards me and jumped on me, and I knew we had won.”
What Hernandez had done was pick off the runner at first base to record the final out that now sends the Mavericks (24-5) back to the state tournament for the fifth year in a row.
“I’m just so proud of the boys,” McCarthy Manager Rich Bielski said. “We work so hard, we practice so hard, we play so hard and we celebrate so hard. Then we get ready to do it all over again. It’s just so much fun. I take my hat off to these players, especially these seniors. This is their last home game, the last game they are going to play on this field. This is the way you want to go out. These are the memories you want to have, of winning that last game and then piling up on the infield with all your buddies. Those lifetime memories, that’s what it’s all about for us. We’re just so blessed, and we thank God for shining on us with these opportunities.”
McCarthy now stands two wins away from making Florida history as the only team to win four state titles in a row.
But to get back for another chance at history, the Mavericks had to come back several times against a scrappy and talented Gulf Coast squad. Each team had a deep bag of tricks, an array of complex baseball schemes, and an arsenal of talented players capable of executing such challenging assignments.
“They are very well coached and they had things going on that we were trying to defend,” said Bielski. “They were trying to bunt, we’d crash on them, then they’d call it off. Then we would call it on them and they’d crash, and we’d put it off. They had some pickoff plays and it was just a cat-and-mouse game.”
Reach into most any McCarthy celebration hogpile and one is liable to pull out a guy who is capable of playing the hero role. On Friday that role went to Aaron Soto, who delivered the winning hit in the sixth inning.
With a pair of runners on base in a tie ball game, the Sharks (24-6) crashed with their infield defense to react to Soto showing a bunt. But as the defense crashed, the Mavericks saw the hole that it opened up and the green light to swing away flashed on.
Soto drew back and worked the pitch deep to then drive it up the middle of the field to send Brandon Vicens home with the deciding run.
“We saw they were crashing, so Coach Bielski gave me the slash,” said Soto. “The pitch was outside, so I pulled back and got it in the hole, and we scored that run. It’s the best feeling in the world. The players here are like brothers, the coaches like fathers. They make us feel at home, and everyday at practice we work on situations for the little things that win ball games like tonight.”
After Soto was replaced on the bases for Andres Matouk, Eddie Silva followed to add an insurance run by roping a screamer over third base and into the left field corner for an RBI double that sent Matouk home.
“They just will not quit,” said Bielski. “They are so together it’s amazing. I’m just so proud of them.”
Early on, it had been the Sharks that had shown the most bite to jump out with the lead, then answer back to retake the lead a second time.
“This group is just crazy enough to make things happen,” Gulf Coast Manager Pete Garcia said, after the team bounced back from a 7-17 season a year ago to play themselves one game away from going to the state tournament.
“Our seniors really changed the attitude as a group, they worked together real well and they deserved to be here. We told them what to expect here, and what they’d be dealing with. We told them to cherish the moment, because they deserve to be here, but it won’t be the last time.”
The Sharks broke open a scoreless game in the top of the third inning, as Drew Freedman reached on an error and scored on an RBI single from Jonathan Cosme. After McCarthy responded in the bottom half of the frame, Gulf Coast retook the lead when Luke Caple singled and came home on an RBI from Ridge Dulitz that made it 2-1 in the fourth.
The visitors applied plenty of pressure early on, as Dominic Blanco lined the first pitch he saw in the second inning from Mavericks starter Brian Gonzalez into left field for a leadoff single and the game’s first baserunner.
Caple worked a walk to follow and put Pat Jarvis into a bunt attempt. But the Mavericks defense crashed to react, as the third baseman Jonathan Quintana came in and grabbed the ball as the shortstop Silva broke to cover third and receive the throw in time to get the lead runner out.
Dulitz followed with the same results, as Caple was erased off the bases when Gonzalez picked up the ball on the infield dribbler and fired to third base in time to put the Mavericks an out away from escaping the threat.
Griffin McCormick then lined a single into centerfield to bring Jarvis around third base and headed home, where he would find out by a distance of roughly two steps just how strong an arm Vicens has as the centerfielder fired a perfect dart to Hernandez at the plate to make the tag and end the inning.
The McCarthy offense took a bit longer to come around, as Gulf Coast sophomore starter Michael Zimmerman proved up to the tough task of facing this vaunted and dangerous lineup.
“He’s been a bulldog all year for us, and he has gotten better every time he came out,” said Garcia of his ace, who opened the season with a loss before winning eight straight decisions to lead his team into Friday’s title bout.
The lefty struck out the side to open the game, and did not allow a batter until Ryan Sinzenich lined a single into center field in the third inning. Blade Bielski reached on an error to extend the frame, and then Quintana drove Sinzenich home on a fielder’s choice groundout to the shortstop.
It was Gonzalez who helped his own cause to answer back after the Sharks went back on top in the fourth, as he lofted the first pitch he saw into shallow centerfield for a one-out single in the bottom of the fourth.
Dylan Bautista came on to run for Gonzalez, and he quickly put those legs to use as Silva bounced one back to the pitcher to put runners on the corners with the infield single. Silva would go 2-for-3 on the day, the only hitter on either club with multiple hits in the contest.
Hernandez then knotted things back up as he lined one past third and into left field to bring Bautista in and send Silva racing around third base as well, only to be gunned down at the plate on the strong-arm throw from Cosme.
Although their season is now over, it is plays like that which help remind the Sharks coaches that the future is bright.
“Pete Garcia did a great job of coming in here and turning it around, of turning the attitude around in these kids,” Sharks assistant coach Jeff Rosa said. “They worked hard everyday and they came out battling. They went from a team that was 7-17 to a team playing in a regional final. The kids work hard. That’s what we’re asking of them and that’s what they’re answering with.”
With the Mavericks now set to move on and play for a chance at the state championship, the team can reflect on all the big plays and heroic moments that have helped propel them back so close to their goals. In their previous game the team had come back from a 5-0 deficit against a tough Mater Academy team in a hostile road environment, then survived late on an amazing catch from left fielder Michael Gigliotti.
On Friday they got big hits in key moments and a few defensive gems that are a staple of McCarthy baseball.
But through it all this season, the primary constant has been the team’s ace in Brian Gonzalez. The big bear has always been up to the calling on the mound, just as he was Friday in scattering six hits while allowing one earned run in six and a third-innings of work.
The junior lefty only issued two walks and recorded six strikeouts, before giving way to Soto to close out the seventh and earn the save.
“He’s the type of pitcher who even if he doesn’t have his best stuff he is going to go out there battling for the team,” said Soto. “Tonight he had his stuff, he battled and he did a great job for us.”
After the tough road that the Mavericks have taken to get to this point, Coach Bielski knows that his team will be up to the challenge that will await them at the state tournament.
“The last two teams we’ve beaten are such high-caliber teams. When you beat a team like that it just gives you confidence for the next game. We’ve really been playing up to the challenge,” said Bielski.