Nazar walk-off puts Sickles past Gaither in 13th

Sickles junior Jaden Nazar rushes to celebrate with his teammates gathering in left field after his walk-off hit won Friday’s Class 6A-Region 3 semifinal for the Gryphons in the 13th inning.

By Mike Camunas, Creative Director

CITRUS PARK — The game was so good, so hard-fought, that the Gryphons and the Cowboys decided to play it twice.

In a four-hour, 13-inning marathon Class 6A-Region 3 semifinal on Friday night — in yet another rematch between nearby rivals — it was Sickles that outlasted Gaither for a 2-1 win to propel the Gryphons (22-7) to a third-straight region final appearance.

We’ve got more photos at this link.

Cameron Guise makes the turn at third base, scoring the game winner from second in the 13th inning. 

The defending 6A state champions now host Bloomingdale (18-10) on Monday night at 7.

“It’s hard to stay locked in for 13 innings,” Gryphons coach Eric Luksis said. “Because later that night, when you put your head on the pillow, it’s either going to feel really good if you win or it could be absolutely heartbreaking.”

“Absolutely (my heart breaks for the seniors),” Gaither coach Nelson North said. “I can attest that they fought until the end, so it is hard. … I (told them I) was proud of them, (I) love you all, and they never quit, and I’m proud of that.”

Gaither junior Jackson Mirza collected three of his team’s five hits, and scored the Cowboys lone run in the first inning. 

After a back-and-forth game that featured stellar pitching, great defense and countering, but missed scoring chances, the Gryphons finally broke a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the 13th as Jaden Nazar drove home Cameron Guise with an RBI single.

“That’s the longest game I’ve played in my life,” said Nazar, out of breath, his uniform ripped off from his torso after the team celebration. “Honestly, (this game is) legendary, being able to play this long. We practice harder than anyone in Florida — (the game was) insane, and we had the stamina to play (13), but we could have gone (14).”

Sickles junior Brandon Gonzales celebrates as he heads to the plate, tying the game in the fifth inning.

“Yeah, 13 innings,” agreed Guise, also out of breath, “and if my math is right, we’ve been here about four hours.”

“And, yeah,” he added, “that’s probably the fastest I have ever run, but I figured, if I (didn’t) score (there), who knows how this game would end, or how much longer it would go.”

Back when the game started, the Cowboys (19-7) opened the first inning, scoring a run after centerfielder Jackson Mirza hit a leadoff single, advanced to third on a throwing error on a pickoff attempt by Gryphons starter Carter LeBlanc, and then scored thanks to an RBI single by Josh Choe.

Gaither ace Michael Fernandez worked eight innings, allowing one run on four hits and two walks, while he struck out eight in a no-decision

That would be the only run of the game until the bottom of the fifth, when Gaither starter Mikey Fernandez, who was dealing, striking out eight Gryphons, got into a jam.

Brandon Gonzales would lead off the inning with a single, Will Lichtenfels reached on an error on a sac bunt, and then back-to-back hit-by-pitches dealt to Emilio Salgado and Braden Ross, respectively, let Gonzales score.

“This was as even as of a matchup that you could possibly draw up,” Luksis said. “I mean, 13 innings and both teams mustered up just one run (a piece). … We were hoping to score more than one run because we got a ton of runs off Mikey in the past, but it just wasn’t as good as it had been in the past.”

Cowboys senior Michael Fernandez.

Fernandez, who lasted just 1 ⅓ innings and gave up 10 runs (four earned) and five walks to Sickles on opening day of the Saladino Tournament, went eight innings this time, throwing 102 of his allotted 105 pitches.

Carter LeBlanc got the starting nod for the Gryphons and the senior held the Cowboys to one run in his four innings of work, giving up two hits and striking out four. 

On the other side of the mound, LeBlanc, getting a surprising start over Guise, the team’s ace, went four innings until Nick Hartley replaced him for 1 ⅓ innings of relief only to give up just one hit and two walks.

Sickles senior reliever Nick Hartley pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings.

However, in what now looks like a genius move, Luksis was able to go to Guise for long “relief,” as the senior would throw 7 ⅔ shutout innings, allow just two hits and struck out 10 batters.

“That was kind of our plan going in, to have Guise available,” Luksis said. “And it worked out for us that we had to use our ace in the back end of this game and they had their ace in the front end of the game. It’s not that their bullpen was bad, but it was nice to have Cam out there in the 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th.

“It is nice when things work out (that way),” Luksis added with a smile.

Gryphons ace Cameron Guise is fired up ending an inning during his 7 2/3 frames of scoreless relief, where he struck out 10 and allowed just two hits. 

Remarkably, the only Sickles player to have more than one hit was Nazar, thanks to his walk-off single, while over on Gaither, Mirza went 3-for-5 with a walk and there were only two other hits from the team

“Both pitching staffs were amazing,” North said, “and the defense with great plays, so that might be one of the best ball games since I’ve been around here at Gaither, and it sucks being on the losing side of it, but I’m proud — of both teams.

“They both put it all on the field, but we didn’t get the clutch hits when we needed them,” he added. “We had scoring opportunities and didn’t take advantage of them.

“(You’ve got to) tip the cap to them because they pulled it out.”

Gaither’s Zach Callahan tossed a scoreless ninth inning.

It was a hotly-contested matchup headed into the game, as Sickles felt it was “disrespected” by previous comments Gaither made following its 9-1 region quarterfinal win on Tuesday.

“I figured this whole (Region 3) bracket was us, (No. 1 seed) East Lake and Sickles, so we were expecting them,” North said after defeating Armwood. “(And) I just told them (after the game) they’re better than Sickles when they play their game, which they have been so far.”

Sickles senior third baseman Michael Bynum.

These comments became “bulletin board material” for the Gryphons, who hung it up in the dugout as extra motivation. Additionally, entering the game Sickles had beaten Gaither in the previous 11-straight meetings.

“You have to win first before you can talk some smack like that,” Nazar said. “We know they’re a pretty good team, but for them to come out and say our names, that’s a little disrespectful.”

Cowboys first baseman Nico Lopez waits on a throw over as Jaden Nazar dives back into the bag. 

“I mean, it was taped up in the dugout, so we saw what they said,” Guise added, “I don’t know where those words are coming from, but it definitely fired us up.

“Good teams know how to win one run ball games, that’s what you saw here.”

Gryphons senior Will Lichtenfels claps to his dugout after his ninth-inning double. 

The Gryphons want to remind everyone they are still the Class 6A state champions — that they’re still a good team and have been all season.

“We’re the state champion until someone takes it from us,” Luksis said, “and that has been our motto all year. No one has really thought we’d be in the position that we’re in, and kind of looked down on the players we still have in this uniform.

“There are constant reminders of the things that were said, the fake news that was there, but we were able to come out on top and now we’re one game away from going back to Fort Myers for a third straight year.”

Class 6A-Region 3

Sickles 2, Gaither 1 (13)

G 100|000|000|000|0 – |1|5|2
S 000|010|000|000|1 – |2|8|1
W – Guise; L – Linares
2B – Mirza (G); Ross, Lichtenfels (S); 3B – Mirza (G). Records – G (19-7); S (22-7).