Jesuit can’t hold early lead, fall in 5A championship

Jesuit senior Jake Kulikowski slowly walks off the diamond as Plantation American Heritage dog-piles on the mound after claiming an 8-5, extra-inning win in the Class 5A state final.

By Jarrett Guthrie, Editor
Photos by Mike Camunas

FORT MYERS – After putting together two incredible baseball seasons, featuring National Top 10 rankings each year, one state title, one Saladino title, the baseball finally slipped out of Jesuit’s grasp. The Tigers committed five errors, coughed up a four-run early lead, and couldn’t find any magic after a lightning delay forced a one-and-a-half-hour stoppage in the Class 5A state title game, falling to Plantation American Heritage, 8-5 in eight innings.

“Hats off to American Heritage, they played well and kept fighting,” Jesuit head coach Miguel Menendez said. “I thought we had a chance to put this game away, and unfortunately we decided to have the worst inning we’ve had all year – maybe in the last three or four years defensively.”

Click here for more photos from this game from Mike Camunas.

The Tigers reached the championship game with a 3-1 win against Sebring on Monday. But the top of the potent Jesuit lineup struggled, going just 4-for-21.

“I think that is the frustration right now,” Menendez said. “I know our guys have worked so hard and played so well, and I don’t think we played to the best of our abilities in these two games. We were able get away with it and win on Monday. Unfortunately, when you play good teams … you can’t give (teams at this point) extra outs, they take advantage and American Heritage did that.”

Tigers senior captain Josh Hines wears his emotions after the Tigers fall in the state final game. Hines played the second half of the season with a partial tear of his meniscus, batting .299 with 14 RBI. 

In a tie game senior Derek Westfall was called on in the fifth inning and cruised, retiring nine straight – including a strikeout to end the top of the seventh – when a bolt of lightning in the distance forced the teams off the field.

After the long delay, during which Menendez said he changed his mind on strategy a few times,  Westfall passionately pleaded his case to return after the Tigers went down in order to send the game to extra innings.

Jesuit relief pitcher Derek Westfall.

However, Westfall’s attempt at a fourth inning couldn’t match his previous three. After recording an out, FSU signee Spencer Butt stepped to the plate, having already come up big for the Patriots with a grand slam tying the game in the fourth, and singled into right field. Things built from there for American Heritage (21-6) as a walk set up Andrew Ortiz’s two-run double into left, followed immediately by a Zack Wilson single to score Ortiz.

“We talked about it multiple times, and I probably changed my mind two or three times,” Menendez said. “(Derek) deserved a better fate and that’s on me, I shouldn’t have run him back out there. That is the one decision that will probably eat at me for the rest of my life.”

Vincent DeCarlo and Josh Hines (#5) are fired up after Jesuit takes an early lead.

After the game, Westfall admitted he felt strong heading back out and wouldn’t change anything about his desire to try and keep the game going.

“Coach Menendez was kind in-between whether to go back with me or another guy,” Westfall said. “I was pretty enthusiastic about going back out there, I really wanted to finish this game. I felt like I had the same stuff … you know, it is what it is.”

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The three-spot sealed the Tigers fate, even despite a fifth error on the Patriots allowing Wes Mendes to reach and stay put at first base as the final out was recorded.

Jesuit (27-5) got ahead early, and similar to Monday’s state semifinal win, it was junior Jacob Lozano who got the Tigers the opening salvo. After back-to-back singles by Josh Hines and Zane Pestalozzi, Lozano pushed a bunt down the first base line and beat out a toss to the bag for an RBI hit.

“We all come together as a team,” Pestalozzi said. “We’re all scrappy players six-through-nine (in the batting order) that can all flat-out rake, bunt, speed – everything. But I’m at a loss, and don’t know what to say right now.”

Senior Jake Kulikowski starts his swing on a double in the first inning.

The bottom of the Tigers lineup created havoc as American Heritage’s defense faltered in the third. An error allowed Jake Kulikowski 2-for-5, double, run) to reach, a walk put two on and a weak nubber back to the pitcher by Josh Hines, saw a throw sail away from the first baseman and allow two to cross. Pestalozzi (3-for-4) made the inning-extension hurt with a double gapped to right-center and Jesuit found itself in firm control.

Jesuit starting pitcher Wes Mendes.

Despite three errors on the Tigers in the first three innings, Mendes was in firm control of the game making the start on the mound. He sat eight hitters down by strikeouts into the fourth inning. The next two Jesuit errors however, proved a bit more troublesome. The Patriots loaded the bases on an error and hits from Chris Levy and Jordan Rich, setting up the senior, Butt, to smash a grand slam – his fifth homer of the year over the wall in the right field corner and tie the game.

A walk followed and ended Mendes’ day on the mound, replaced by freshman Wilson Andersen. A dropped fly ball in left, a walk and a wild pitch allowed American Heritage to take a one-run lead as the Patriots sent 11 hitters to the plate in the inning.

Jesuit senior Wes Mendes, who won last season’s state final game on the mound, shares a post-game hug with head coach Miguel Menendez. Menendez told 813Preps prior to Monday’s game, Mendes “may be the best player I’ve ever coached.”

Pestalozzi kept his bat burning hot, tying the game back up with a single lined into left, but a Kulikowski single in the sixth would be the Tigers final hit of the season.

“I’m proud of our guys for fighting and coming back to tie the game back up, and give us a chance in the seventh,” Menendez said. “… It’s been a little while since we’ve been on this end of it.”

Zane Pestalozzi yells toward his dugout after an RBI double.

In search of the program’s seventh title, the loss spoiled the Tigers most recent chance to win back-to-back titles for the first time in school history.

Class 5A State Championship ⚾

Plantation American Heritage 8, Jesuit 5

A 000|500|03 – |8|7|5
J 013|010|00 – |5|7|5
W – Turco; L – Westfall (3-2)
2B – Ortiz (A); Kulikowski, Pestalozzi (J); HR – Butt – GS (A). Records – A (21-6); J (27-5).