A baseball game isn’t over until the final out is recorded.
Never was that more evident than in Punta Gorda on Tuesday, when Kevin Heben’s diving grab on a fly ball to shallow right field robbed Charlotte’s Christopher Naskale of a game-winning hit, and preserved a 3-2 win for Gulf Coast in the Region 7A-3 semifinal.
“It’s playoff baseball, you expect the unexpected,” Gulf Coast coach Pete Garcia said. “We’ve played in games like this all year. We’ve played close games, a tough schedule against good teams. I told them we don’t lose close games.”
20 minutes earlier it looked like the Sharks(23-7) were well on their way to their third regional final in the last five years. Senior starter Niels Stone was dealing, holding the Tarpons scoreless through the first six innings.
In the seventh however, everything started to unravel. Stone walked the first two batters before recording an out. Garcia sent in lefty Luke Dawson to try and end it, but Dawson also struggled to find the zone, first walking the bases loaded, then walking Robert Oettinger to score a run and get Charlotte on the board for the first time all night.
Zach Lang replaced Dawson, who promptly walked Kevin Conway, scoring yet another run, and closing the Tarpons to within 3-2 with the bases still loaded and just one out.
But there was still no concern in the Sharks dugout.
“I didn’t have a doubt in my mind that we were going to lose,” Stone said. Stone finished with two runs on six hits and three walks in six and a third, with seven strikeouts. “Zach went out there and did his thing.”
Lang got Aaron Martins to hit a popup just behind second base, to close to allow an attempt to tag and score the tying run from third, then on a 1-0 pitch, Naskale sent one toward Heben in right, dead on into a headwind which had been present all night long.
“When I started coming in I realized it was going to be a tough play and I was going to have to dive,” Heben said. “You can’t second guess yourself. Just don’t think and make the play.”
Jaime Soto got the Sharks on the board in just the second at bat of the game, drilling a solo shot over the left field wall, once again directly into that wind.
“It was a changeup inside,” Soto said, admitting he didn’t think it was going to go out. “I looked up to go ‘where’s the ball’ and saw it got out. It’s a home run.”
Drake Dobyanski added two more runs in the fourth on a two-RBI single to make it 3-0 Sharks.
The state semifinals and finals are at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, the Sharks passed by on the drive up and on the drive back to Gulf Coast’s campus. Playing on that field is just one game away, as it has been twice in last five years, most recently in 2015 with a 4-0 loss to Sarasota in the regional finals in extra innings.
This time, it’ll be Land O’ Lakes Sunlake, who trounced St. Petersburg Northeast 8-1 in the other semifinal.
“The goal at the beginning of the year for every team is to get to the state championship, and that’s our goal,” Garcia said. “We’ve got to keep doing what we do. We’ve got to pitch, play defense, and get timely hitting.”
GULF COAST 3, CHARLOTTE 2
1st Jaime Soto solo HR to left (1-0)
4th Drake Dobyanski singled to right, Colin Cararrigg scored, Emil Valenzuela scored(3-0)
7th Robert Oettinger walked, Dustin Thomas scored(3-1)
7th Kevin Conway walked, Garrett Dunson scored(3-2)
W: Niels Stone. 6.1 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 7 K
L: Kyle Machago. 3.1 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 4 BB, 2 K
S: Zach Lang
Region 7A-3 Final. Gulf Coast vs. Land O’ Lakes Sunlake, May 23
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