Bloomingdale junior Nico Saladino has made the most of his opportunities on the mound as injuries forced the Bulls to turn to their everyday shortstop. He continued his solid run with a complete-game, district semifinal win on Tuesday. (813Preps file photo).

By Nick Nahas
Special to 813Preps 
PLANT CITY – Bloomingdale’s Nico Saladino found out today that he would be the starting pitcher for the biggest game of the year for the Bulls. He did not disappoint.

“It started with Nico on the mound, 100 percent,” said Bloomindgale head coach Kris Wilken. “He made big pitches when he had to.”

The junior wasn’t even a starting pitcher until about midway through the season when senior pitcher Jesse Hunter went down with an injury. Saladino made his first start of the year against his former team, the Brandon Eagles, throwing a complete game shutout. That set the tone for the rest of his season.

He went to the mound Tuesday night to face Durant for a chance to advance to Thursday’s 8A-District 6 championship game. The Bulls had split the regular season series with Durant, but Saladino swung the season series for Bloomingdale with a 3-0 semifinal win.

Saladino pounded the strike zone, throwing just 83 in a seven-inning complete game shutout effort. He struck out six, giving up two hits and two walks.

“I felt good,” said Saladino. “Coach said to come out here and try your hardest, and that’s what I did and it worked out perfectly. I couldn’t have done it without my catcher, he did great back there.”

The top-seeded Bulls set the tone in the first inning when catcher Jake Gilbert tagged Brendan Queen out at the plate for the final out of the inning when he tried to score from third on a wild pitch.

Bloomingdale would strike early in the same frame, scoring two runs. Bryce Hazzard (1-for-3) hit a single with one out and advanced to second on a throwing error by the left fielder. Jackson Hobbs (2-for-2) followed that up with a hard-hit single up the middle. Hazard would score on a passed ball and senior Jett Davis (1-for-3) would drive in Hobbs to make the score 2-0.

There wouldn’t be any more scoring until the 6th when Kyle Merkle drove in an insurance run with a double down the left field line to make the score 3-0. That was all Saladino needed as he would finish the shut out of the Cougars. The Bulls have beaten Durant in the semifinals the last two seasons.

The Bulls advance to play Riverview for the second-straight year in the 8A-District 6 championship game Thursday at 7 p.m. at Durant.

“I’m very happy that these guys get to continue to play and go into the playoffs and be one of the final 32 teams in the state to go and compete for a state title,” said Wilken. “They worked very hard all year and they deserve this.”

In Tuesday’s earlier semifinal, the Riverview Sharks, led by the pitching efforts of Andrew Martinez and a key three-run 6th inning, defeated Plant City, 5-2 to move on to Thursday’s 8A-District 6 championship game.

Martinez came in relief of starter Ty Correa, who threw three innings, allowing two runs on three hits on 46 pitches.

With the Sharks trailing 2-0 with two outs in the top of the 5th, Dillon Besnier (3-for-4) tied the game with a two-run home run.

In the top of the 6th with two outs, Riverview rallied for three runs off of FSU commit Parker Messick to take the lead for good, getting four hits and taking advantage of two Plant City errors and two hit batters.

Martinez pitched the final four innings of the game, throwing just 60 pitches, giving up no runs on no hits, while picking up the win.