Crusaders slips by Avon Park in region opener win

Crusaders reliever Dominic Woodward jumps for joy after striking out three Avon Park batters in the seventh inning to earn the save in TC’s regional quarterfinal victory.

By Chuck Frye, Senior Staff Writer

TAMPA – From big innings to big mistakes to big rebounds, Tampa Catholic and Avon Park were about as evenly matched as two teams could be in Wednesday’s Class 3A playoff opener.

But when the Crusaders thought small, it made the key difference in a 4-3 victory, setting up a road date with Bishop Verot in the regional semifinals on Saturday.

Tampa Catholic’s Charlie Parker drops down a perfect bunt to advance teammate Lucas Cinnante to scoring position in the fifth inning.

Deadlocked going into the bottom of the fifth inning, with Red Devils starting pitcher Brad Benton having retired 11 TC batters in a row, the hosts saw a glimmer of hope when No. 8 batter Lucas Cinnante drew a walk. Getting the chance to practice what the coaching staff preaches, Charlie Parker laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt to move the junior leftfielder up to scoring position for leadoff man Cole Bitman.

“I was just hoping Cole did what he needed to do,” Cinnante said “Just get me over so, hopefully, we’d make something happen.”

Tampa Catholic third baseman Cole Bitman loads up to throw out Eric Harrison and end the fifth inning.

Bitman did, but it created a decision for Cinnante as a slow roller traveled toward him and Avon Park shortstop Eric Harrison. But a full season of situational practices stood Cinnante well as he read the grounder and broke for third, reaching the bag easily when Harrison threw to first.

“We practice a lot of base running and we learned that if the ball is hit at you and slower when you’re at second base, you take off and you get there (to third),” Cinnante said.

Crusaders first baseman Dominic Woodward battles to catch a low first-inning pickoff throw as Avon Park runner Eric Harrison slides in safely behind him.

“The base running in that portion of things was perfect,” Crusaders head coach Paul Russo, Jr. said. “It’s always good to see when kids do something in the game that you practice religiously. It’s key at this time of year.”

Tampa Catholic’s Carson Arnold rolls a first-inning single past a drawn-in infield, the fifth straight base runner the Crusaders got to open Wednesday’s Class 3A regional quarterfinals.

The decision worked like a charm as Benton (who struck out seven over five innings, giving him 114 Ks for the year) uncorked a wild pitch that brought Cinnante home with the eventual winning run.

“We play a lot of teams that rely on the long ball, that big hit, but we work as a team to produce runs,” Cinnante said. “I think that’s what makes us unique from other teams.”

Avon Park starter Brad Benton shook off a tough opening inning by throwing four innings of no-hit ball with seven strikeouts to keep the Red Devils in the hunt.

Third seed Tampa Catholic (now 19-8) utilized some long balls to take a first-inning lead. Getting its first five batters on base, cleanup batter Dominic Woodward blasted a ball halfway up the centerfield fence for a double to score Hershey Sanchez (walk), and a wild throw to third allowed courtesy runner Christian Serralles (in for catcher Ethan Frame, who doubled) to come home. Carson Arnold added a run-scoring base hit.

Despite a meltdown third inning, Tampa Catholic senior Alex Sotiropoulos recovered strongly, finishing with six innings of three-hit ball with nine strikeouts.

TC senior Alex Sotiropoulos got off to a strong start on the mound before running into some self-sabotaging work in the third frame. Starting with leadoff walks to bottom-of-the-order batters Jace King and Carson Cloud, the Columbia commit almost escaped but gave up a two-out bases-clearing double to junior Eric Harrison. A passed ball and wild pitch brought Harrison home and knotted the score 3-3.

“I definitely got a little out of control in the third,” Sotiropoulos said. “I’ve been trying to work on that all season. I realized that my defense is there to make plays and I don’t have to do everything myself. That really soothed my nerves and got me out of the pit I created for myself.”

Tampa Catholic senior and Pensacola State College commit Ethan Frame smiles at his bench after his first-inning double.

Avon Park runner Carson Cloud slides safely under the tag of Crusaders catcher Ethan Frame to score on Eric Harrison’s third-inning, two-run double.

Sotiropoulos got back to “working the (strike) zone, hitting my spots” and shutting down No. 6 Avon Park (17-9) through the sixth inning, finishing with nine strikeouts, before Woodward stepped in to yield a harmless single and fan three in the seventh to earn the save.

Russo said: “Dom is going to start (against Bishop Verot, an 8-0 victor over Clearwater Central Catholic to advance on Wednesday). He pitched against them about a month ago (a 5-3 Verot victory) and did well. We need him to throw the ball over the plate, throw strikes, and we’re going to need big hits.”

Avon Park tried to catch TC’s Christian Sorralles rounding third base too far but the first-inning throw eluded third baseman Jace King and allowed Sorralles to score.

For victory on Saturday, Cinnante said: “We need to keep doing what we’re doing, do our job at the plate. That’s how we’ll succeed and how we’ll end up winning.”

Class 3A-Region 2 

Tampa Catholic 4, Avon Park 3

A 003|000|0 – |3|4|0
T 300|010|0 – |4|4|1
W – Sotiropoulos; L – Benton; S – Woodward
2B – Harrison (A); Frame, Woodward (T). Records – A (17-9); T (19-8).