American High closer Andy Figueroa is key to state title hopes

05/15/2014 12:01 AM

05/15/2014 2:38 AM

He doesn’t start, so he doesn’t often beat teams.

He just finishes them.

He’s Andy Figueroa, American High’s smallish, 5-10 senior closer who doesn’t look very impressive — until he buries you with his cut fastball.

“He’s a little guy,” said American coach Ricky Gutierrez, a former major-league shortstop. “I guarantee you that other teams are looking at him and thinking: ‘We’re going to kill this guy.’ But he throws a lot of strikes, and he rarely struggles.”

Figueroa, who does not as yet have a college scholarship, is 2-0 this season with seven saves, a 1.83 ERA, 27 strikeouts and two walks in 20 innings.

“To me,” Gutierrez said, “he is the Mariano Rivera of high school baseball.”

Figueroa has been doing his Rivera impersonation for two years now — and American has reached the state final each season.

Friday at 4 p.m. at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, American (24-5) will play Tallahassee’s Chiles (23-6) in a Class 7A state semifinal.

With a victory, American would get a chance to win the first state baseball title in school history at 7 p.m. Saturday in the finals.

American, established in 1976, had never been to the state final four until 2010. But this is the Patriots’ third trip in the five years since Gutierrez took over the program.

On Friday, American will start ace right-hander Ronnie Williams, a senior who leads the team in wins (six), ERA (1.01) and strikeouts (80 in 56 innings).

Williams has already won three big games in American’s stretch run: a 12-2 victory over Reagan in the district final, a 5-1 win over South Broward in the regional quarterfinals and a 5-1 knockout of St. Thomas Aquinas in the regional semifinals.

“I predict Ronnie will get drafted between the second and fifth rounds,” Gutierrez said of Williams, who also has a scholarship to Florida A&M.

“He has matured a lot since last season. He’s not trying to strike everyone out like before. Now, he keeps his pitch count low and goes further in games.”

Gutierrez said Williams has also improved his velocity form 90 mph to the 92-95 range. He mixes his fastball with a curve and changeup.

Should Williams get a win, American would make the final against either Kissimmee Osceola (24-6) or a Tarpon Springs East Lake (21-8) team that has four players with baseball scholarships, including an infielder to Wake Forest and a pitcher to Air Force.

Alex Blanco, a senior right-hander, would start for American in the state final. In the regional final, he beat West Palm Beach Dwyer 2-0.

Blanco, who has a scholarship to Miami Dade College, started out this year in middle relief but quickly moved into the rotation after a season-ending shoulder injury to Mike Rodriguez.

“Alex has been outstanding,” Gutierrez said. “He throws three quarters — pretty much sidearm — and gave us a big boost by winning the regional final.”

But as good as Blanco and Williams have been, if American wins its first state title, the young man with the ball in his hand for the final pitch will likely be Figueroa.

After all, Figueroa got the last out in each of American’s three regional playoff wins:

• He struck out the side in the seventh against South Broward.
• He came on with two outs and two on in the seventh against Aquinas and struck out the only batter he faced.
• And he combined with Blanco to shut out Dwyer.

“I tell my guys to give me six innings and the lead, and let’s get the ball to Figgy,” Gutierrez said. “I have great confidence in him.

“His cutter is amazing. It moves tremendously. It fools hitters because it looks like a fastball, but, at the last second, it’s cutter.”

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