Never mind the fact that they suffered through a miserable first three innings. When push came to shove, the St. Thomas Aquinas baseball team did plenty of shoving Friday afternoon.
The Raiders fought their all the way back from a 3-0 deficit to rally and defeat Lakeland George Jenkins 6-3 in eight innings in a Class 8A state semifinal at CenturyLink Hammond Stadium. The game that took a lot longer than they ever thought as the game spilled into Friday evening following a six-hour weather delay.
And with that, Aquinas punched its ticket to the Class 8A state championship game, a place the Raiders haven’t been since 2003 and the last time they won a state title. Aquinas will take on Sarasota at 5 p.m. Saturday.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been through something like this,” Aquinas coach Troy Cameron said about the long delay. “We just worked to try and keep the kids hydrated, trying to get some food in them and keep their minds right. But what a great job by all of them to come back on a great team like George Jenkins when things did not go well early and then finish it off.”
St. Thomas, (26-3) ranked No. 16 nationally by Baseball America, trailed George Jenkins 3-0 after three innings before single runs in the fourth, sixth and seventh sent the game to extra innings.
Then, just as a heavy rain started to fall, designated hitter Chris Ruckdeschel stepped up with a runner on and two outs in the top of the eighth and launched a deep fly ball into the right field corner. Jenkins right fielder Taylor Buffington, perhaps struggling with the rain, dove for the ball but couldn’t come up with the catch.
Cade Fergus scored easily from second for the go-ahead run and as the ball bounced around in the corner and Buffington struggled to his feet, Ruckdeschel raced around the bases for an inside-the-park home run. When play resumed after the long delay, Riley Rosario singled and Gabe Terry doubled him home for an added insurance run.
“To be honest, I actually thought it was a pop-out when it left the bat,” said Ruckdeschel, a Florida State commit who missed most of the season because of a lower-back injury before returning for the regional playoffs. “I wasn’t sure if he had caught it or not so I just kept running. Then I saw Coach waving me home, so I kept chugging. Probably the greatest baseball moment of my life.”
It was definitely a rocky start for St. Thomas pitcher and Davidson commit Blake Hely and his teammates as the Eagles (26-4), ranked No. 7 nationally by Baseball America ,scored two runs in the bottom of the first and another single run in the third.
A throwing error by third baseman Caleb Roberts contributed to Jenkins’ two first inning runs and by the time Hely closed out the third, he was laboring having already thrown 64 pitches. But he then settled down and retired 10 of the next 11 batters to keep the Eagles off the board.
“A big game and I really didn’t know much about Jenkins, and I guess I was a little amped up at the start. I definitely struggled a little early on,” Hely said. “But I just stayed with it and settled down and started finding my spots and I was okay from there.”
Sophomore Nate Thomas, a University of Miami commit, relieved Hely after six innings and after pitching the seventh, waited six hours to come back out and record the final three outs to get the save.
Catcher Nick Vera started the comeback off Jenkins starter Daniel Batcher when he rocketed a two-out solo home run just inside the left-field foul pole in the fourth to get St. Thomas on the board.
Aquinas loaded the bases with one out in the sixth when Vera launched a fly ball to right field deep enough to score a run on a sacrifice fly. But Ruckdeschel grounded out to the pitcher to end the inning.
When Rosario flied out to left to open the seventh, the Raiders were down to their last two outs. But Terry then singled to left and beat out a ground ball off the bat of pinch hitter Connor O’Hara at deep short and was barely safe at second on the attempted force out.
Matt Archer singled up the middle, but Terry was held at third before Andres Antoninni launched a fly ball deep enough to right to allow Terry to tag up and score to tie the score.
▪ The weather delay pushed both Class 9A semifinals back, including the Columbus-Jupiter game that will be played at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday. That game will follow the first 9A semifinal between Orlando Timber Creek and Orlando Dr. Phillips, which will begin at 9 a.m. The winners will meet at 8 p.m.