FORT MYERS -- One inning of great small ball by Haines City and shaky pitching and defense by St. Thomas Aquinas cost the Raiders their season on Friday at JetBlue Park.
With the game tied at one in the top of the seventh, Haines City drew two walks and laid down two successful bunts, including a go-ahead suicide squeeze, to snag a 2-1 lead that it would not rescind in a Class 7A state semifinal game.
The Hornets will play for the state championship Saturday at 4:05 p.m. at JetBlue Park, the spring training home of the Boston Red Sox.
“You don’t expect to lose a game when you don’t give up any earned runs,” St. Thomas Aquinas coach Troy Cameron said. “It’s baseball. Stuff like that happens.”
Henry Silvagoli drew a leadoff walk for the Hornets to start the seventh and moved to second after Jadis Ortega’s bunt single. A failed bunt attempt resulted in the inning’s first out, but Haines City loaded the bases after an error by Aquinas.
Hornets shortstop Keshawn Smith then laid down a suicide squeeze bunt perfectly down the third-base line that scored Ortega.
Raiders cleanup hitter Alec Byrd drew a walk to open the bottom of the seventh, but Haines City pitcher Daiton Scarborough set the next three Aquinas batters down in order to end the game.
“A couple mistakes were made and Haines City, being a good team, capitalized on them,” Cameron said.
Haines City wasted little time jumping on the Raiders as leadoff batter Bryan Morales reached second base after an error in the top of the first inning. Morales then stole third and scored on Keshawn Lynch’s RBI infield single to short.
Lynch then stole second to get in scoring position and was motoring home after Scarborough’s single up the middle. But a laser throw from Aquinas center fielder Peter Nicoletto cut down Lynch at the plate and helped prevent what could have been a huge inning for Haines City. Raiders pitcher Frank Rubio struck out the next batter, and Scarborough was thrown out trying to steal third to end the frame.
“Right when he hit the ball I knew I was going to throw him out,” Nicoletto said of Lynch.
Aquinas went down in order in its first two innings and neither team managed more than one runner on base again until Haines City had runners on second and third for Kevin Cruz with two outs in the top of the third. Cruz, the Hornets’ cleanup hitter, battled Rubio during an eight-pitch at-bat but popped out to first base to end Haines City’s rally.
A two-out double by Raiders shortstop Will Ardin finally gave Aquinas some life in the bottom of the third. Ardin scored and tied the game at 1 after Nicoletto ripped a double to right-center — his second of the game. Hornets starting pitcher Mike Ogden then struck out Christian Demby to end the inning.
Nicoletto also had a defensive highlight when he threw out Lynch motoring home in the first to stop some early bleeding.
Neither team threatened again until the top of the sixth when Cruz singled and reached second base on an error for Haines City. Speedster Equon Smith pinch ran for Cruz and moved to third on a passed ball with two outs. Rubio got Austin Taylor to harmlessly flight out to left to end the inning though.
The Raiders had the top of their order come to the plate in the bottom of the sixth but Scarborough, who relieved Ogden in the fifth, set them down in order almost effortlessly.
Aquinas, making its first final-four appearance since 2010, finished the season with a 17-7 record.
“We feel like we have accomplished a lot,” Rubio said of his senior season. “We didn’t accomplish what we wanted. We were capable of winning the state championship. … It’s definitely going to be a neat thing to watch what [Aquinas] can accomplish over the next couple years.”
WP: Scarborough. LP: Rubio.