There were multiple times this season where had it been the final stop for American Heritage’s baseball team, it would have been understandable.
The Patriots, a team replete with talented underclassmen, refused to quit every time.
Two more took place in Heritage’s matchup against Tampa Jesuit in the Class 5A state championship game at Hammond Stadium.
First, when Heritage fell behind by four runs. And later, with the game tied in the seventh, when the game was halted by an 88-minute lightning delay.
The Patriots responded with more resilience. And that’s the reason, they walked off the field Wednesday afternoon as state champions following an 8-5, eight-inning victory over the defending champion Tigers.
American Heritage (21-6), a school that has produced multiple major leaguers like Eric Hosmer, Triston Casas and Mark Vientos, won its first state title since 2012 and its third all-time in a season where it was not even the favorite to emerge from its own region. Instead, the Patriots upended rival Archbishop McCarthy and two games later ousted Jesuit (27-5), a six-time state champion.
“The brand and the tradition is back where it belongs,” said Heritage coach Mike Macey, who was an assistant coach on the Patriots’ two previous championship teams and its 2009 state runner-up team. “It’s been the goal for 11 years now and it’s finally back.”
The wait would have been longer for Heritage had it not been for timely hits and pitching performances throughout the postseason.
Senior shortstop and Florida State commit Spencer Butt delivered the two biggest on Wednesday.
After the Tigers took advantage of two of Heritage’s four errors to take a 4-0 lead in the bottom of the third inning, the Patriots loaded the bases with one out. Butt came up and ripped a towering, grand slam to right field to knot the game up at 4. Heritage would take the lead three batters later after two more walks and an error by Jesuit when pinch runner Noah Ditas scored on a passed ball.
“I was just trying to hit the ball hard and get at least one run in and get us going and that’s what happened,” Butt said. “You have to step up in those situations and these are my brothers. I wouldn’t have wanted that to end any other way.”
Tied at 5 and about to begin the seventh inning, lightning in the area prompted the nearly hour and a half delay.
When the teams returned to play, reliever Antonio Turco retired the side in order for Heritage.
Butt would then spark the game-winning rally with a one-out single in the eighth. After Mateo Serna walked and Lucas Ramirez reached on a fielder’s choice, Andrew Ortiz put the Patriots in front for good with a double down the left field line.
Zack Wilson followed with a two-run single, scoring Ramirez and Ortiz.
“This all starts with (Butt) he’s meant so much to this program since the eighth grade,” Macey said. “As big as the home run, the hit in the eighth was the winning run.”
The rest was up to Heritage’s young arms, which played a huge role again as it did in Monday’s semifinal win over Lake City Columbia when sophomore Talan Holiday pitched 6 ⅓ innings and struck out nine.
On Wednesday, it was freshman Spencer Krasner, who closed out Monday’s game and came back to pitch 5 ⅔ innings, striking out five and allowing one earned run on three walks and six hits on 95 pitches.
“I know him and Talan are a freshman and sophomore by grade level, but they pitched well beyond their years to get us here,” Macey said. “It’s incredible. It’s borderline arrogance but (Krasner) wants the ball.”
Turco then slammed the door in the bottom of the eighth, brushing off another error to finish the game in front of a raucous crowd of their fans which included members of the American Heritage football team.
Butt and catcher Mateo Serna are the only seniors in Heritage’s starting lineup, making it conceivable that this is only the start for the Patriots.
“That’s always our goal (to win a state title), our expectation,” Macey said. “You always hear Heritage is down this year. Ok, we’ll play that to our advantage. But there are no guarantees in this game. You have to show up and play good baseball.”