FORT MYERS - Clay High senior Tyler Spence had a banner day at the plate with back-to-back doubles in the Blue Devils’ Class 6A semifinal game against Jefferson High of Tampa, but the outing had a …
FORT MYERS - Clay High senior Tyler Spence had a banner day at the plate with back-to-back doubles in the Blue Devils’ Class 6A semifinal game against Jefferson High of Tampa, but the outing had a dismal ending to an exciting season for Clay as Jefferson pulled off a 7-2 win Wednesday morning in Fort Myers.
“Tyler Spence has been a proven number three hitter for his entire career here at Clay” said Clay coach Josh Persinger. “He wanted this bad, the fight in his eyes was like nothing I’ve seen from him. I have watched Spence crush guys like Dominguez (Jefferson pitcher Miguel Dominguez) for three straight summers. It broke my heart watching him tear up after the loss. “
Jefferson advanced win the Class 6A title 6-5 over Merritt Island. Merritt Island beat Barron Collier 8-2 in the opposite 6A semifinal.
In Class 5A, Bolles remained as the only other north Florida school to be in the Final Four; beating Nature Coast 4-1 in their semifinal before losing 10-4 to Monsignor Pace in the 5A championship game.
The loss ends the Blue Devils’ season at 24-7 with Clay being the lone Clay County team to reach the Final Four.
“This is my first class to come through all four years. I’ll never forget these guys,” said Persinger. “It truly has been my pleasure coaching them. Seeing the boys they were as freshmen turn into the men they are now is why we do what we do.”
For Persinger, his eight seniors; six to play college ball, got as far as all but one Clay High team with a strong work ethic and some tough region playoff games including a nine-inning thriller over Ponte Vedra High in the semifinal and a 2-0 win over powerhouse Mosley High, a three-time Final Four team, for the state berth.
“This team was built completely different than the 2014 team we had, but the heart and will to win was remnant of the Hunter Alexanders and Wes Weeks of the past,” said Persinger, reference Alexander, now at University of Alabama and Week, now at University of North Florida. “This team proved our philosophy of success to be true; out-work everyone. These guys bought into what we were preaching and didn’t just do it, they lived by it. We beat a lot of teams with a lot more talent this year.”
Unfortunately for senior pitcher Connor Solomon, the mojo of two strong outings prior to Jefferson ended in the third inning with the Dragons challenging Solomon for five runs off two singles, a field error and a two-run homer.
“Conner was sick all morning, I knew that before the game and asked him if he was good, then reminded him Michael Jordan played one of his best games ever with the flu,” said Persinger. “After the second inning, he ran off the field and was puking in the tunnel, his dad said he was done, I asked Conner and he said give me the ball. So I gave him the ball. He has been our horse all year and is a huge part of why we were there. If I had to do it all over again, I’d give him the ball. Regrets? None, but I’ll always wonder what could have been if we have him at 100 percent. I like our chances.”
Jefferson junior pitcher Michael Dominguez, a University of Tampa signee, kept the Clay basepaths bare with 12 strikeouts for the day, but opportunity came sparingly with Spence hitting long doubles to the faraway fields of Century Link Field’s 400-foot fences though both doubles were with bare basepaths.
Clay had early success against Dominguez in their first at bats with Kevin Jackson and Spence both getting hit with errant pitches, but Josh Lemen and Solomon both got stung with strikeouts.
“They were very nervous and I was told their pitcher hadn’t hit anyone all year and then hit two in the first inning,” said Persinger. “I knew he was a game and it was only a matter of time he would settle down.”
Solomon retaliate with three strikeouts of his own against the middle of the Jefferson batting lineup to keep the score locked at 0-0.
Chase Holman opened the second inning with a long fly ball to left field that hit the turf just inside the foul line for a long single as Holman hesitated thinking the ball would sail foul. With a grounder from Colin Gross to third base that looked to be the start point of a double play, Gross hustled in front of the second base toss to give Clay another baserunner. Dylan Faulkner struck out through to end the inning.
In the third, Jefferson’s bats exploded off a walk to an awarded first base off a violation on Solomon for putting his fingers in his mouth, a single and an error at shortstop the scored the first of five runs for the Dragons. Two flyouts almost ended the inning including a diving stab from Andy Yarbrough at first base that he almost threw out a baserunner at second after the catch, but a three balls, two strikes single down the left field line scored two more Dragon runs. Freshman Sal Vega then blasted a homer over the left field fence to up the score to 5-0 and also put Yarbrough on the mound. Yarbrough would put up two hits before ending the inning with a strikeout.
Spence tried to breathe life back into the Clay offense after strikeouts to Jackson and Nick Barrie with his first double with a walk to Lemen putting two Clay baserunners in play, but Gross struck out.
“I have seen this team come back from 0-6 in the 6th to win a game in extras,” said Persinger.
Yarbrough proved tactical on the mound with a strikeout and a nifty pickoff throw of Jefferson’s top hitter, FSU-bound A.J. Mathis, at second in the top of the fourth.
In the bottom of the fourth, Holman sped around the infield after hitting along flyball down the left field line that put him at third base with a balk scoring Clay’s first run before Dominguez got three strikeouts.
“I originally held him but the ball ricocheted in the corner and he got a great read,” said Persinger. “My guys have good baseball instinct, with the ball in left he had a better view of the corner. I was good with it.”
Jefferson got a walk off Yarbrough in the fifth, but a double play and a standout play by first baseman Zach Morris on a foul ball right inside the field fence ended the inning.
With two outs in the bottom of the fifth; a flyout to Jackson and a strikeout to Barrie, Spence blasted his second double of the day deep to centerfield to put Clay in play. Lemen would benefit from a misplayed flyball to third base that scored Lemen before a strikeout ended the inning with the score 5-2 and Clay feeling like they were shaking up the Jefferson pitching and defense.
“I told McQuaig (assistant coach Travis McQuaig) in about the fifth inning, I think our luck ran out today,” said Persinger. “Balls that usually fall weren’t, the bang bang play and close calls didn’t go our way, but that’s baseball.”
In the top of the sixth though, Jefferson scored two more off check swing dribbler to second base and two singles to go up 7-2. Solomon, at shortstop now, made a spectacular diving stab of a line drive by Mathis that nearly became a double play.
Jefferson change pitchers in the sixth after singles from Holman and Yarbrough, but a double play and flyout ended the threat.
“The wind was really out of our sails after that double play in the sixth, but still they battled in the seventh,” said Persinger. “I love these guys.”
With Spence now on the mound, Jefferson got two singles, but two strikeouts to end the inning scoreless.
“Spence wanted this one,” said Persinger. “They all did, but he brought something extra to Fort Myers.”
Spence got to first base in the Clay final at bats on a shortstop throwing error, but a strikeout ended the game.