Saturday’s 7A championship game was the height of baseball irony.
The Venice Indians (29-3) overcame uncharacteristically shaky starting pitching and exploded for their highest run total of the season, belting 21 hits and scoring in all but one inning en route to a 14-4 win over Haines City at jetBlue Park in Fort Myers.
With the win, the Indians became the first team in school history to repeat as state champions and did so by bludgeoning the Hornets into submission with bats that might as well have been sledgehammers.
Mike Rivera’s two-out triple in the top of the first scored courtesy runner Langston Provitt and gave Venice a 1-0 lead.
Concern seeped in during the bottom half of the inning when Venice starter Brandon Elmy allowed three runs after retiring the first two batters he faced. Austin Taylor’s 2-run triple to deep center field gave the Hornets the lead and Michael Branche’s RBI single to center made it a 3-1 game.
The Hornets lead proved to be short-lived.
Tyler Atwell, who went 4-for-5 and scored two runs, led off the second with a double. Ryan Miller’s single to right scored Atwell, and Josh Grubbs moved Miller to second with a sacrifice bunt. Danny Raynor singled, and Dalton Guthrie laid down a successful squeeze bunt to score Miller and tie the game at 3.
Venice Head Coach Craig Faulkner said, “I knew these guys would come back and battle with them. Any time you get behind, it’s a little nerve wracking, but these guys jumped right back in and got the job done … quick.”
Right-fielder Nick Longhi, who went 3-for-5 with three RBI, said there was no panic among his Indians teammates.
“The mood was that we had to keep on fighting,” Longhi said. “It’s something everybody on the team wanted; we wanted to go back-to-back. And we had the mindset that going down in the game wasn’t going to change that. We were gonna fight and claw for every run we could get until the end.”
Elmy settled in during the second and third innings, holding the Hornets scoreless while the Indians scored twice in the third and fourth innings to build a 7-3 lead going into the bottom of the fourth.
The Hornets led off the frame with an infield single by Walter Vasquez. Faulkner called on closer Cooper Hammond (9-0, 10 saves, 0.13 ERA), who was well-rested after not being used in Friday’s semifinal win over Chiles.
Vasquez eventually came around to score and make it a 7-4 Venice lead, but that was as close as the Hornets would get. The Indians scored three runs with two outs in the fifth on run-scoring base hits by Colton Lightner, Elmy and Longhi.
The six-run cushion was more than enough for Hammond, who allowed just one earned run during the 2013 season. Only three Hornets reached base after Hammond entered. And for the second straight year, the side-armer was on the mound for the final out of the season.
“So special,” Hammond said. “It means a lot. It doesn’t get much better than throwing the last two pitches of two state championships.”
Faulkner said, “There’s not many guys who have had the earned run average he has. When he’s on the mound, the game is over.”
With all due respect to Hammond, the Indians likely would’ve been fine Saturday regardless of who was pitching. Venice’s No. 4-7 hitters — Rivera, Longhi, Atwell and Miller — combined to hit 14-for-19 (.736) with seven RBI and six runs scored.
The outburst was hard to see coming, considering Venice often relied on manufacturing runs by playing small ball during the season.
“You never expect that kind (of offense),” Faulkner said. “But they stepped up big on the biggest day of the year. They went to right field, they went to left field, they sprayed the ball all over the place. These guys sitting here stepped up for us. Big hits all the way through.
“We felt like we were the best team coming in, but the best team doesn’t always win. Our job as coaches was to try to keep them grounded and doing the things they’ve been doing all year. We were ready for this.”
With consecutive state titles and three in the last seven years, it’s fair to say the VHS baseball team is now a dynasty until proved otherwise.
At the postgame press conference, the questions comparing this year’s team to last year’s were posed to Faulkner.
“Last year’s team, which a lot of these guys were on, built a foundation for this year’s team,” he said. “They got us an invitation to go to the USA Baseball tournament and to the Perfect Game national tournament. Last year’s team was a great team that did some great things. But none better than this team.”