Getting back to state a huge ‘relief’ for Espinosa, Stingrays

Seacrest Country Day School baseball players and coaches celebrate their regional championship with this team photo on Friday. RON HARTMAN/SPECIAL TO CSI

BY RON HARTMAN
SPECIAL TO CSI

Brandon Espinosa flipped the script Friday on the Class 2A-Region 3 championship baseball game.

And it couldn’t have resulted in a better storybook ending for Seacrest Country Day, which advanced to state for the fourth time in six years after rallying for a 5-4 home win over Seven Rivers Christian.

The regional final was billed as a pitcher’s duel matching Seven Rivers junior Carson Pillsbury — a Florida Gators commit — against Stingrays freshman Justin Jackson, who came in with a 10-1 record and a 25-inning scoreless streak.

Jackson’s streak ended at 27 when Seven Rivers (22-5) scored three runs in the third inning. He found himself in hot water again two innings later, trailing 4-3 with two on and nobody out.

Seacrest coach Mark Marsala elected to bring in Espinosa, who started this same regional final matchup last year — an 11-5 Warriors win in Lecanto — and now was given a chance to close it out. 

Espinosa promptly threw a double-play ball to get out of the inning. 

Brandon Espinosa takes his turn at the plate during Seacrest’s regional semifinal home win over Victory Christian on May 14. GREGG HARDY/CSI

“That double-play ball was the best feeling in the world,” said Espinosa, who also had a two-run single in the third inning that tied the game. “I’m a ground-ball pitcher, and getting out of that inning was huge for us.”

Last year against Seven Rivers, Espinosa took a line drive to his knee from the game’s second batter. Unable to push off the mound properly, he allowed six earned runs in the season-ending loss.

“It killed me, losing like that,” Espinosa said. “I had put my heart into winning. But this year I’ve been pushing even harder. And Coach has made me an outfielder, so I’m not just a pitcher anymore.”

Said Marsala: ”He’s willing to do whatever it takes to win.”

In the bottom of the fifth, Danny DiNorcia led off with a single, and Jordan Martinez beat out a bunt. Matt Riley tied the game, plating DiNorcia with a liner to left-center. Joseph DiNorcia drew a bases-loaded walk for the game-winning RBI.

Marsala and his staff had to make plenty of adjustments since the early part of the season, when Seacrest stumbled to a 3-6 start.

“If you would have seen this team early on, you’d say they’d be lucky to finish .500,” said three-time Major League Baseball All-Star John Kruk, whose son Kyle, a junior, plays for the Stingrays (20-9). 

PHOTO GALLERY: View images of Seacrest’s regional semifinal win over Victory Christian

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Marsala and Kruk both pointed to Jackson’s quick development as a big reason for the team’s success.

“His brother Drew got drafted by San Francisco and his brother Jordan played some JUCO ball,” Marsala said. “So Justin has always been around the game. He’s very coachable.”

“He really knows how to pitch,” Kruk said.

Now the Stingrays can focus on trying to shut down Wakulla Christian (18-2) on Wednesday at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers. The winner of that 4 p.m. game will play for the 2A title Thursday night at 7:30.

“I went to states my freshman year but I feel a lot better about this year’s team,” Espinosa said. “We’re a closer team and I think we’re better prepared this time.”

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