Friday night’s Class 6A state semifinal matchup between defending champion Mater Academy (19-9) and 2012 and 2013 champ Venice (27-3) figures to be one of the best of the weeklong baseball tournament at Fort Myers’ JetBlue Park.
But the game within the game — Mater slugger Danny Reyes against Venice pitcher Cole Kragel — should be just as good.
Reyes, Mater’s center fielder, is a University of Florida recruit who is hitting .386 with a team-high 26 RBI. He has nine homers and, to put that number in perspective, the rest of his team combined has just eight.
“Everyone thinks he is a mammoth in the weight room,” Mater coach Michael DiRosa said of the 6-2, 210-pound Reyes. “They ask me: ‘What does he lift?’ But he hasn’t lifted weights in a year.”
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If Reyes is Mater’s Incredible Hulk, then Kragel is Venice’s Human Centipede — all arms and legs at 6-9.
Kragel, a Virginia Tech recruit who is expected to start on the mound for Venice on Friday, is 13-0 with a 0.59 ERA and 98 strikeouts in 71 innings. He has allowed just 29 hits.
Even more imposing — especially for right-handed batters such as Reyes — is the fact that Kragel uses a side-arm delivery.
Veteran Venice pitching coach Jeff Callan has a history of converting at least one pitcher per year to a sidewinder. Current University of Miami reliever Cooper Hammond used that delivery to lead Venice to its 2012 and 2013 state titles.
But Hammond is 6-3, six inches shorter than Kragel.
Mater is expected to counter with its ace, Kevin Fuentes, who is 10-1 with a 1.37 ERA. But even Fuentes was stunned when a reporter revealed to him Kragel’s height.
“Six-foot-nine?” Fuentes said incredulously. “Oh wow, that’s serious. He must be nasty.”
Fuentes, who is 6-foot tall, does not have to hit. But Reyes, who will battle Kragel, was already well aware of the pitcher’s size and talent.
Reyes said Kragel’s pitches tend to run in on right-handed hitters.
Mater will try to lay off those pitches and target throws that are located middle of the plate or outside.
Venice, ranked No. 1 in the state regardless of class, has pitched eight shutouts — including the past two games in a row — and has allowed two runs or fewer 23 times, making up for an offense that lacks power.
Mater, meanwhile, is 3-1 against Miami-Dade teams that have made it to state this year, beating 8A Columbus, 3A Westminster Christian and 2A Brito. Its only loss to a state-bound team was 3-2 to Class 4A Gulliver.