McDonald, Gryphons top Jesuit in Steinbrenner Classic final
By Jarrett Guthrie
TAMPA – Sickles head coach Eric Luksis was prepared for a committee day on the mound heading into Friday’s annual Steinbrenner Field Fall Wood Bat Classic championship game against Jesuit.
But, junior pitcher Caden McDonald had other plans for his start.
McDonald, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound right hander took to the mound at the Spring Training home of the New York Yankees and peppered in strike-after-strike, taking a perfect-game through 4 2/3 inning before hitting a batter. McDonald would work 5 2/3 innings in total issuing one walk, before allowing his first hit and moving to first base for the duration, while two more pitchers held Jesuit to a single run and earning the Gryphons a 5-1 victory to cap the two-week tournament with the title.
“I was a little nervous before the game, because I know how good they (Jesuit) are,” McDonald said. “But once I was out there, I knew I had to treat it like just another game, not put too much into it. Sure, there were butterflies, but once it started you just have to play your game.”
McDonald finished with 10 strikeouts on 89 pitches, perhaps a little over what Luksis would have wanted from a fall ball outing, but a performance the coach felt he couldn’t pull his player from.
“Yeah, that was a little more than I’d want to have any guy throw in the fall,” the Gryphons coach said. “But I wanted to see what he had in a big stage, then when he started cruising we had to let him see how far he could go. For sure, his best outing for us at the high school level.”
Gryphons catcher Justin Allen said he had high hopes for his battery-mate well before the first pitch.
“I could tell in the bullpen he was on fire,” Allen said. “From the first inning he did everything he had to do tonight.”
In offensive support, Sickles gave McDonald all he would need in the second inning as Allen drew a leadoff walk, was replaced by courtesy runner Jordan Yost, who advanced on a dropped third strike to third and scored on a wild pitch. Nico Berg’s single moved Luke Fikar to third a few plays later, before Fikar scored the deciding run on a passed ball.
Junior lefty Wes Mendes started for the Tigers and pitched four innings allowing just two hits, but issued four walks with just a pair of strikeouts.
Jesuit’s defense kept things from spiraling further on Mendes in the fourth with the bases loaded, as a fly ball to right fielder Jake Kulikowski sparked a whirlwind series of throws across the diamond. Kulikowski fired a throw home and a rundown ensued between third and the plate, as Tigers catcher Bryce Fraga and third baseman Grant Jordan worked well in tandem, with Jordan making a tag for the second out before whipping and throwing to third base where second baseman AJ Nessler applied a tag on a sliding runner for a huge triple-play.
The following inning, Tigers center fielder DJ Pirela made an excellent diving catch for the first out of the fifth. However, Jesuit was unable to use the big defensive play to turn things around for the Tigers – one of two champions crowned in last year’s Steinbrenner Classic.
The Gryphons would add another run in the top of the fifth when an error allowed a run to cross.
The home-fifth saw Jesuit get its first runner off of McDonald, when the junior hit senior Jack Martinez with two outs, but that threat disappeared with another strikeout.
McDonald finally started to show some wear with two outs in the sixth, walking Jesuit pinch-hitter Derek Westfall, followed by a ground ball dribbler down the third base line off the bat of Christiano Flores allowing him to record his team’s first hit.
After the game, McDonald knew he probably helped Jesuit get its first mark in the hit column.
“Immediately after I was thinking I should have let it go foul,” he said with a chuckle. “That was where I got pulled, but I know I left absolutely everything I had out there.”
Kyle Timko entered in relief for the Gryphons allowing the bases to load, but ended the sixth inning with a strikeout.
Sickles added some padding to its lead in the seventh when Carter Christy led things off with a double (the game’s only extra-base hit), followed by two walks before Allen drove in a run with a ground out and Ruben Sostre drew a bases loaded walk later in the inning.
“On this team we really prize getting your job done,” Allen said. “You don’t have to put it over the fence, you just have to go out there, get on base and let the whole team do their part.”
Jesuit finally got on the board in the final half-inning as Kulikowski and Nessler each singled and advanced a base on a sac bunt by Martinez, before Jordan drove in a run for the Tigers with a ground ball.
The Steinbrenner Classic, often the final games for most teams’ fall seasons, has served as a decent barometer for success in the following spring. Last season saw COVID force two smaller tournaments, rather than the 24-team event of this (and previous) season(s), with Jesuit claiming the first 2020 tournament by defeating Sickles in that final before going on to win a district title in 2021, while a second fall tournament was claimed by Bishop McLaughlin. In the fall of 2016 King won the event, followed by Leto (2017), Plant City (2018), and Jesuit (2019), where each of the event’s winner reached the FHSAA state final four (including state titles for Plant City and Jesuit) the following spring.
“Honestly, I can’t wait until the spring and I’m so excited to see how much further along we are then,” junior Carter Christy said. “I love what we’ve done so far, and this just adds to the excitement we already had heading into next year.”
Though the action on the field was exciting, perhaps the best highlight of the night was Sickles senior AJ Sawmiller’s return to the dugout. Last month at Saint Leo, Sawmiller had a scary collision with the wall while trying to make a catch, resulting in some serious injuries (for more on Sawmiller’s injury and how you can help his family in his lengthy recovery – click here). Sawmiller joined his team in the dugout and also helped cap the post-game celebration with a water-bottle soaking of his teammates. After the win, Luksis awarded the game ball to his injured senior.
“It was very scary and tragic what happened to him,” Christy said. “But to see him out here looking great, cheering and supporting us means so much to all of us – we absolutely love it.”