Leto freshman Coltin Pizzio jumps up into the arms of his uncle, head coach JJ Pizzio, after making the final putout as the Falcons came from behind to defeat Viera to reach the 7A state semifinals for the second-straight season. 

Story and photos by Andy Warrener

TAMPA – For the first five innings of the Class 7A regional final between the Viera and the Leto, it seemed as though the magic had run out. Winning the regional quarterfinals in walk-off fashion and beating district rival Gaither for the second time in 11 days to just make the regional finals, looked like it would have to be enough.

Lackluster at-bats and a trio of fielding errors left fans in the bleachers and probably even some players in the dugout thinking the magic train had made its last stop. It hadn’t.

Leto senior Isiah Gonzalez can’t get the call on a play at second.

An RBI single from Mikey Camacho in the fifth and a Coltin Pizzio tag-up from third, coupled with a Viera throwing error in the sixth, let the first, second and third runs across. Reliever Franklyn Hernandez shut it down in the seventh with a ground out and two strikeouts and the Falcons are headed to the state semifinals in Fort Myers, after a 3-2 win.

“We had to give it our all, this was the last game on this field for some of us and we were not going to give them a chance to score (in the seventh),” Franklyn Hernandez said.

The Falcons found trouble from the start. A routine ground ball to second turned into a fielding error with the very first Viera (21-9) hitter.

Leto (23-6) starter Christian Suarez didn’t have his best stuff Wednesday night. The Hawks put runners in scoring position the first two innings but Suarez wiggled off the hook. In the third inning, two Falcon fielding errors and an RBI single from Alan Espinal let two runs skate across the plate.

Freshman Brayan Cruz (No. 11) hugs teammate Bryan Perez after the senior’s RBI sac fly in the sixth. 

A sardonic skipper JJ Pizzio lamented his team’s lack of discipline. The Falcons went down in order in both the third and fourth innings. The dugout was silent as an east-ward wind blew dust in their faces, almost mocking the disastrous denouement they were headed for.

Then in the fifth, Brayan Cruz crushed a double to the center field wall. It was just the second hit of the game for the Falcons up to that point. A wild pitch sent Cruz to third and an RBI single from Mike Camacho gave the Falcons their first run.

Then the dugout woke up. The idiomatic dugout chants the Falcons use when they’re feeling it began to start the bottom of the sixth inning. First hitter up, Coltin Pizzio slashed a double down the first base line and the dugout erupted.

“When the team started cheering, I knew I had to do my job, I knew I had to wait for my pitch and get on base,” Coltin Pizzio said. “I felt like this was our chance to do this, everything we’ve worked for came down to this.”

Bryan Perez hits an RBI sac fly in the sixth. 

Javy Hernandez hit an infield single to setup runners on the corners with one out. Then Bryan Perez hit a fly ball to left, not a very deep fly ball, either.

“I knew I would have to tag and do my best to make it home,” Coltin Pizzio said.

The ball touched leather and Pizzio raced toward home, his batting helmet barely clinging to his head. The throw from left glanced off the catcher and skipped all the way to the first-base dugout. By then, Javy Hernandez was pounding feet for third base. The throw from home to catch Hernandez sailed and he dashed home to take the Falcons from immolation to elation and from a 2-1 deficit to a 3-2 lead. They just needed to close out the top half of the seventh.

Leto senior Javy Hernandez digs for home scoring the deciding run for the Falcons. 

Franklyn Hernandez had hoped Suarez would pitch the whole game but the constant flow of base runners forced Suarez to throw triple-digit pitches and coach JJ Pizzio tapped Franklyn Hernandez to come in for the sixth. Pizzio knew what Hernandez needed to do in order to get the next three batters. He could have very easily taken the reins and made the pitch calls from there. He didn’t.

“I didn’t want to do it (take over pitch calls),” JJ Pizzio said. “I want these kids to learn how to be a man and they’re not going to be a man if they just listen to what everyone tells them to do. The pitcher can shake off any calls the catcher makes and throw what he wants. Also, they can’t blame me if they give up a hit.”

Leto starting pitcher Christian Suarez (No. 47) greets his
replacement Franklyn Hernandez (No. 6) after his
fellow senior records a third out. 

Franklyn Hernandez dialed up his best stuff. Luke Brown went down looking. Edian Espinal went down looking. JT Smith singled to center but lead-off hitter Connor Leary hit a grounder right to Coltin Pizzio who put it away for the third out, the 3-2 win and the punched ticket to the state final four.

The discipline that had eluded the Falcons for five innings came back in the very nick of time —

“We were getting beat,” coach JJ Pizzio said. “You have to know when they are throwing certain pitches when to take disciplined swings. We started doing that and then they (Viera) started doing undisciplined things.”

— just in time to send the Falcons back to their second-straight state semifinal.

Leto will face Doral Academy in the FHSAA Class 7A state semifinals on Friday, May 31 at 7 p.m. from Fort Myers’ Hammond Stadium.

–  Andy Warrener is a longtime area journalist and photographer. Follow Andy on Twitter at @jawarrener