When it was over, Columbus pitcher Matt Marini walked out of his team’s dugout to his team’s locker room holding a championship belt. He earned it.
Marini, in relief of starter Chris Coipel, turned in a remarkable performance on Wednesday night as the Explorers, taking on a stacked opponent that boasted a 28-2 record, No.2 Max Preps national ranking and a roster filled with 10 Division I prospects, stunned Lake Worth Park Vista 5-4 in a Class 8A state semifinal at JetBlue Park. The game began three hours after its scheduled 4 p.m. starting time because of a lightning delay.
Columbus (26-5) will look to capture just its second state title on Thursday night at 7:35 p.m. when the Explorers take on Orange City University.
“It’s kind of a thing we started doing during the season, the guys giving the belt to whoever had a great game, and I guess I got it tonight,” said Marini, who did not expect to be trotting to the mound in the third inning, relieving starter Chris Coipel, who struggled out of the gate and gave up three walks, six hits and three runs. “Chris had two great regionals and now it was my turn to step up. That’s how we do it, we make sure we’ve got each other’s back.”
Marini took the ball from Coipel and managed to limit the loaded Cobras offensive firepower to just four hits and one run while striking out six over the final five innings. And he earned it at the end as well.
After Park Vista’s Jordan Poore doubled into the left-field corner with one out in the last inning, Marini dug down and made his best pitches of the night, striking out Tyler Huggins and Ben Greenstein on nasty breaking balls to end the game.
“It was just a matter of baring down and executing at the end,” Marini said. “My teammates were counting on me, and I wasn’t going to let them down.”
And all of that while dealing with an injured toe.
“Matt and Chris have just been great all year. They’ve been doing it all year to the point where you expect it and what really made it especially tough tonight is Matt’s been pitching with a broken toe and taking cortisone shots just to get through,” said Columbus coach Joe Weber. “I think Chris struggled due to the fact that he got hot and then all of a sudden you sit for two and a half hours and have to start the process all over again and that’s tough on a pitcher and I think it had an affect on their pitcher (Park Vista starter Austin Smith) as well early on.”
That’s the way it appeared.
After Park Vista touched Coipel for a run in the top of the first, his teammates had a big answer in the bottom half when the Explorers pelted Smith, an FAU commit projected to go in the second or third round of the upcoming MLB draft for four runs.
Danny Casal led off with a base hit to left and Dominick Reyes followed with a towering drive off the left field Green Monster for a double scoring Casal who enjoyed a big night going 3-for-4. After Alain Santana walked, Jackie Urbaez singled Reyes home and then stole second to put runners on second and third and still no outs. After Nick Rocha and Jose Machado both struck out, Gabe Rivera came through with a clutch 2-RBI double in the gap to complete the big inning.
After the Cobras trimmed the lead to 4-3, Columbus came up with what turned out to be the difference-making run in the last of the fourth.
That when, with two outs, Casal blooped a double down the right field line that landed just inside the foul line. After he advanced to third on a wild pitch, Reyes singled to left to bring him home to make it 5-3.
Park Vista got its only run off Marini in the fifth when Smith led off with a double, went to third on a groundout and then scored on a wild pitch by Marini that might’ve been an out as Smith was coming home on a squeeze attempt that PV batter Greenstein didn’t get the sign on and didn’t square to bunt.
“I think it was a typical win for us, another one run game,” said Weber whose team has now recorded four straight one- run wins in elimination games. “That’s all we’ve been doing. This team all year has figured out ways to win and they did that again tonight. They just have an uncanny ability of pulling things out.”
PV 111 010 0 — 4 10 0
COL 400 100 0 — 5 9 1
WP: Matt Marini; LP: Austin Smith
Keys Gate Charter was among the Class 4A-2A baseball honarable mention teams. Junior William Sanchez was among county leaders in strikeouts, complete games and ERA. Freshman Omar Baldo started as a catcher, second baseman, third basemen and shortstop throughout the course of the season, batting .356 with a .553 OBP.
If you go
What: The state baseball championships.
When: Through Thursday.
Where: JetBlue Park, 11500 Fenway South Drive, Fort Myers.
Admission: $9 per day; Parking: $10 for cars, $50 for fan buses.
Wednesday’s results – Class 7A semifinals: Oviedo 12, Plant City Durant 0; Sarasota 3, Royal Palm Beach 2; Class 8A semifinals: Columbus 5, Lake Worth Park Vista 4; Orange City University 4, Orlando Timber Creek 1.
Thursday’s schedule – Class 7A final: Oviedo vs. Sarasota, 4:05; Class 8A final: Columbus vs. University, 7:35.