The Doral Academy Firebirds, just five outs away, could see it, feel it – practically taste their first state baseball championship.
And then just like that, it all slipped away into the night Fort Myers air.
Doral led Venice 2-0 with one out in the top of the sixth only to watch the defending state champions rally for three runs and make it stand up as Venice edged the Firebirds 3-2 in the Class 7A state championship game on Saturday night at CenturyLink Sports Complex.
“A tough moment right now for everyone,” said Doral head coach Ralph Suarez. “But I feel especially awful for our seniors because they’re not going to get a chance to get back here again.”
Those same seniors, four of whom were starters, did everything they could to try and smile when it was over. Doral administrators, in a class act, showed up to perform a graduation ceremony, complete with cap and gown and family members there.
The school had held its graduation earlier in the day back in South Florida which the players obviously could not attend, a ceremony that would’ve been a lot more joyous had they held on.
After Doral (24-7) had scraped across a run in the bottom of the third on a two-out RBI single to left by starting pitcher Adrian Figueroa and followed that up with a tape measure home run to right by Xavier Moronta in the fourth, the Firebirds were in front 2-0.
“I was just sitting on a curve ball and I knew that if he made a mistake and hung it that I could get good bat on it and I did,” said Moronta. “hat was a big moment because being up two with our pitching staff, I kind of thought the title was ours at that point. Baseball’s a tough game sometimes and we found that out tonight.”
But it was following Moronta’s shot that Suarez made a move that some might question but one that he said he’s been doing all season. Despite the fact that he had a four-hit shutout going, Figueroa was pulled in favor of Luis Espinal after four innings.
Espinal managed to get through the fifth but the sixth inning was an entirely different story.
After Venice’s Kevin Dubrule reached on an infield single to start the inning, Espinal balked him down to second. Following a strike out, Venice’s Zac Calhoun ripped an RBI double to right center slicing the lead in half.
Chason Rockymore followed with a single to left putting runners on the corners before Reagen Jackowiak dropped a perfect squeeze bunt not only scoring Calhoun from third but reaching first when Espinal tried to make the throw home which was way too late.
Marek Houston then flied to deep center for the second out but when Rockymore tagged at third, it appeared he had left early. Doral appealed the play to second which would’ve been the final out but a safe call was made. Mac Guscette then lined a base hit to left to score what turned out to be the winning run and Espinal was gone.
“We thought he (Rockymore) might’ve left early and appealed but didn’t get the call and that was that,” said Suarez. “Nothing you could do at that point. As far as giving the ball to Luis, we just thought the change of velocity would be good and to be honest we’ve been doing that a lot all year and its worked for us.”
“Going in the idea pretty much was four innings and then to the bullpen because our bullpen has pretty much been lights out for us all year long,” said Figueroa who indeed pitched four innings in a regional semifinal shutout win over Belen before Espinal came in to finish up. “We obviously had plenty of confidence in Luis going out there, it just didn’t work out this time. It’s tough because we were so close.”
Then came the bottom of the sixth and another crucial moment for Doral.
After Figueroa led the inning off with a walk, pinch hitter Andres Bordone was hit by a pitch, chasing Venice starter Danny Rodriguez for reliever Clay Callan and the Firebirds were set up with runners on first and second, no outs and home run hitter Moronta due up.
Even though the situation might’ve called for a bunt, Suarez chose not to take the bat out of Moronta’s hands. Unfortunately he flied out to left which was followed by a Ronny Medina strike out Dominic Pitelli groundout to second ending the inning. Doral then went down in order in the seventh and it was over.
Said Suarez: “Moronta not only is not much of a bunter but you had a kid in there throwing sidearm (Callan) and I didn’t want to take the bat away from him. Here’s a kid who had just ripped a shot into the right field stands his previous time up so I just wasn’t going to take the bat out of his hands at that point.”