The Monsignor Pace baseball team has 17 seniors who still have a sour taste in their mouths from a 1-0 state semifinal loss to Bishop Verot that ended their junior seasons last year.
Now, the Spartans find themselves in the same round in the Class 4A playoffs. This time, the seniors understand there won’t be a second chance like there was last season.
A loss would mean their high school baseball careers are over, but a victory against Ocala Trinity Catholic on Monday at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers would put Pace in position for its seventh state baseball championship — and first since 2006.
“Last year we were sort of upset how they showed in that first game there,” Spartans coach Tom Duffin said. “We played a good Bishop Verot team. We just felt we didn’t play to our best ability, especially offensively.”
Duffin hopes the more seasoned group will come out with the right approach to the big game.
“They seem to have been able to mature and not get caught up too much in the hype of the games,” he said. “What have they learned? It’s yet to be seen. We can go there and possibly do the same thing and be starstruck. We can hope that we’re not. Hopefully, we’ll be ready to handle whatever pressures the state tournament holds and comes our way.”
The Spartans (22-6-1) will lean on their two aces on the mound — right handed Luis Deville and lefty Jonathan Hernandez. Duffin has not decided which one of the two seniors will get the ball against Trinity Catholic.
“Johnny and Luis are both, in my opinion, equally as strong, and I guess depending on what we can match up with [will determine who] we’ll start,” Duffin said.
“I don’t mind starting either one of them to be honest with you.”
The ideal situation for Pace would be to have one go deep into the semifinal and have the other take the mound in the final, which would be played Tuesday against the winner of Bishop Verot and Pensacola Catholic, last season’s 4A state champion.
Duffin also is prepared to bring in whichever pitcher doesn’t start out of the bullpen if things don’t go smoothly. He said he will not be looking ahead to the state final as he understands Pace needs to advance to it first.
Another pitcher the Spartans can use is Alex Perez, who lost that 1-0 state semifinal as the No. 1 starter on last year’s team and is finally healthy after recovering from a lower back strain.
“If we have to go to him, I feel we don’t lose anything at all,” Duffin said. “It’s just another bullet in our chamber that we can use.”
Perez’s lower back is not the only injury that has hampered Pace. The Spartans have had a laundry list of injuries — senior catcher Anthony de la Cruz missed three-fourths of the regular season with elbow tendinitis and shortstop Bryan Bermudez was out the latter third of the year with a pulled groin. They haven’t been able to run a set lineup where every player is in his true position.
“We never had what we envisioned to be our starting unit until the last few playoff games,” Duffin said.
That said, the Spartans are getting healthy at the right time and with their closest playoff game a 5-0 win against St. Brendan, they are in shape to make a run at the state title. If there’s one thing that can heal the pain — not only from injuries, but also from last season’s loss — it would be a dog pile on the mound of JetBlue Park after a pair of state wins.