The little school tucked away in a corner of NW 12th avenue near Marlins Park arrived in a big way late Thursday afternoon.
The Titans of SLAM Academy had a big task in front of them. Taking on defending state champion Westminster Christian, a decorated program with a state record 11 championships.
SLAM, a baseball program in just its second year of eligibility in FHSAA postseason play, stunned the Warriors by rallying for two runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to knock off Westminster 2-1 in a Region 4-4A semifinal at Gibson Park in downtown Miami.
With the win, SLAM moves into Tuesday’s regional final where the Titans (20-7) will host Fort Lauderdale Calvary Christian at 4 p.m. at Gibson Park. The winner will advance to the state final four in Fort Myers. Calvary Christian knocked off Florida Christian in the opposite regional game.
“When you’re young, which we are, a win like this is so huge,” SLAM coach Alfonso Otero said. “The kids hung in there and with this team it’s been like that all year. I tell them all the time to scrap until the final out and that’s what they did out there today. To beat a decorated state champion like Westminster Christian — what a win for this program.”
Otero watched in frustration all game as Westminster pitcher Jake Zarello stymied his hitters, taking a no-hitter into the last inning.
That’s when Jose Garcia led off and broke it up when he hit a low liner to right field that just landed in front of the outfielder. Otero spurned the sacrifice bunt and gave cleanup hitter Andres Santana the green light to hit away. Santana hit a shot to the right center field gap, scoring pinch runner Alex Rodriguez from first.
After Chauncey Nuñez sacrifice bunted Santana to third, Perry Wilson stepped up to the plate but never swang the bat. Westminster pitcher Alex Ruiz, who had replaced Zarello after Santana’s double, threw his second pitch in the dirt that got past Warriors catcher Louis Avilles. Santana sprinted home with the winning run.
“I was just looking for good pitch to hit and he [Zarello] gave me a fast ball up, and I wasn’t going to pass that up and caught it perfect,” Santana said. “That’s one thing about our team, we fight to the end. We get 21 outs and we play every one of them hard. What a big win for our program and this will help us down the road to win more big games and now we have another one next week.”
Otero said that he had given Santana firm instructions.
“I told Andres if you fall behind 0-1, the sac bunt was on,” Otero said. “I guess as a coach you go with your gut feeling sometimes, and he sure made me look good.”
The game was a pitchers duel between Zarello and SLAM starter Blake Brattain before the Warriors scored in the fifth. With the bases loaded and two out, Zarello hit a routine ground ball to second but when Luis Padron threw low, he drew first baseman Juan Osorio off the bag.
Otero didn’t agree and argued his case for more than five minutes but the call stood.
Zarello walked four batters in the first three innings but settled down and had it in cruise control heading to the seventh having retired the previous 10 SLAM batters.
“I knew where my strike zone was, and I wasn’t going to get out of it and looked for a good pitch to drive the other way,” said Garcia of his leadoff hit. “I saw that the right fielder was playing closer to center and knew I had some room to drop one in. I told Andres before I went up that ‘it has to be you and I and it’s GOING to be you and I.’ We had worked too hard to get to this point and didn’t want it to end.”
Region 4-4A semifinal — Fort Lauderdale Calvary Christian 6, Florida Christian 1: Ben Rozenblum’s grand slam in the top of the second inning is all the offense the Eagles would need to knock off the host Patriots.
Without the benefit of a hit, (2 walks and a catcher’s interfence call), the Eagles loaded the bases with two out when Rozenblum stepped up and blasted a 1-0 fastball over the left-field fence.
Sophmore and University of Florida commit Christian Scott took over from there as he gave up just two hits while striking out seven FC batters in six innings.
The Eagles (19-9) will travel to Miami-Dade County Tuesday to take on SLAM Academy.
“It was a 1-0 count and coach just told me to be ready for a pitch, and I was just looking for a fast ball and put a good swing on it,” Rozenblum said. “It felt pretty good when it left the bat, and I knew with Christian on the mound, we were in great shape at that point.”
The Eagles got their ace two more runs in the top of the sixth on a Brett Lawson RBI single and a sacrifice fly by Noah Yager.
Florida Christian (20-9) got its only run when Willy Hernandez hit a two-out RBI single off Scott in the last of the sixth.
“That was a big swing by Ben, he’s been coming up big for us all year,” Scott said. “My change up and fastball were really on tonight so I’m glad I could help my team. Coming up one win short of state last year was tough and we want to take that next step this time.”
Region 4-2A Semifinal — Miami Christian 10, Lake Worth Christian 0: The Victors were led by ace Chris Otero, who threw a one-hitter against the Defenders to advance.
The senior pitcher threw a complete game in five innings and had eight strikeouts.
“I was really feeling it, I was hitting my spots all game,” Otero said. “I was able to challenge them with my fastball early on.”
Offensively the team was led by the senior catcher Ernesto Perez, who led the game with three hits.
“It was a good game all around. We performed in every aspect of the game,” said coach Chris Cuadra.
The next playoff game is Tuesday at 4 p.m. against the winner of the Champagnat and Palmer Trinity Christian game.