Prep baseball: Snakebit Stingrays press on with hopes of another deep playoff run

Seacrest baseball coach Mark Marsala, front center, talks to his players after a 1-0 home loss to Southwest Florida Christian on April 24. GREGG HARDY/CSI

BY GREGG HARDY
CSI EDITOR

This is not the postseason lineup that Seacrest Country Day School baseball coach Mark Marsala thought he would have at the start of this 2018 campaign.

Let’s go through the list.

Matt Hurley, the team’s star pitcher and one of its top two hitters: He’s done for the season after one pitch in a preseason game. The Rollins College-bound right-hander had Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow — “a big loss” Marsala called it.

Dwight Zafra, a freshman who moved into the lineup to replace Hurley and is hitting .490: He’s sidelined indefinitely with an illness.

Sophomore first baseman/outfielder Kyle Kruk: He just returned after a seven-week absence due to a torn growth plate.

Junior third baseman Lucca Meyer, who started the year at second base: He missed three weeks with a “severe” concussion after getting hit in the head.

SOFTBALL: Kruk, Traina have Stingrays heading in right direction

And yet, here the Stingrays are, vying for a third consecutive trip to the state semifinals. (They’ve lost the last two by a combined three runs.) Seacrest locked up a trip to the Class 2A regionals with its 8-3 home win Tuesday over Community Christian in the District 6 semifinal. Seacrest (18-8) hosts Sarasota Christian (9-11) on Thursday for the district crown.

“You can’t write some of the stuff we had (to go through),” said Marsala, who’s back to wearing two hats at Seacrest (he’s also the athletic director) following George Reidy’s resignation last year after just one season on the job. “Our mentality, though, is ‘Next man up. Next man up. It’s your turn? Let’s go, see what you can do.’”

Andrew Geiger has shown Marsala what he can do. A junior who transferred from Palmetto Ridge High School having only pitched in a couple of JV games as a sophomore, Geiger has adequately filled the vacancy on the mound left by Hurley.

Junior Andrew Geiger delivers a pitch to a Southwest Florida Christian hitter during Seacrest’s 1-0 home loss on April 24. GREGG HARDY/CSI

“We didn’t know what we had with (Geiger) coming in,” Marsala said. “He hasn’t pitched a whole lot. He’s new to it, he’s been raw, but the thing is, he’s got no bad habits, and we’ve been teaching him and teaching him, and he’s been getting better and better. He’s been pitching fantastic for us down the stretch.”

Seacrest will ride Geiger — who is the cousin of Stingrays baseball brothers Joey DiNorcia, a sophomore, and Danny DiNorcia, an eighth-grader — and sophomore Brandon Espinosa, the team’s No. 1 hurler, throughout the postseason. Marsala said both are getting better with each start.

Labeled by Marsala as a “crafty” left-hander, Espinosa drew rave reviews after recently going pitch for pitch with Evangelical Christian’s pro prospect, Ben Specht. In fact, Espinosa carried a no-hitter through 5 2/3 innings of that game — a 2-1 Seacrest win on April 19 — when Marsala lifted him for having reached his pitch count.

Geiger thinks he and Espinosa have “responded well” to Hurley’s injury. He said they just need to avoid high pitch counts in the postseason and let Seacrest’s bats do most of the heavy lifting.

“Hitting (will) be our strength in the playoffs,” said Geiger, who, ironically, was victimized by a lack of hitting in a 1-0 home loss to Southwest Florida Christian on April 24 that saw him throw 82 pitches over seven innings. “(We) just need to hold (opponents) to one or two runs.”

With the way Miller is swinging the bat this season, one or two runs may be more than enough for Seacrest. The senior slugger, who will play for Hillsborough Community College along with teammate Erick Chavez, was third in the nation and first among Florida high schools in home runs this season with 12 through the Southwest Florida Christian game. He was also hitting .545.

Center fielder Andrew Miller, is not only the biggest bat in the Stingrays’ lineup; he leads Florida and is third in the nation in home runs this season. GREGG HARDY/CSI

It was a home run by Miller off Specht’s replacement that gave Seacrest the 2-1 win over Evangelical Christian.

“(He’s) taking it to another level this year,” Marsala said.

“It just clicked,” Miller, a center fielder, said of his power surge at the plate (he did have four or five homers last season, Marsala said). “Maybe my velocity in my bat is a little higher, but it’s just starting to click more.”

Entering the season, the Stingrays boasted a “Core Four” group of seniors — Miller, Hurley, the stalwart catcher Chavez, who in a recent game threw out three would-be base-stealers, and Colin Breuer, who’s played for Marsala since he was in seventh grade. But that was it; no other seniors on the team. Without Hurley’s arm and bat, experience certainly will not be on Seacrest’s side as they prepare for regionals.

“We just felt like we had to play that much harder,” Miller said of the effect that Hurley’s injury had on the team. “It was a downfall because we were missing a pitcher and a good hitter. Honestly, we just had to play that much harder, and we were OK with it.”

So, is Seacrest — easily the most successful baseball program in Collier County over the last five years — primed to make yet another deep postseason run despite a big bite from the injury bug? Or, are they merely a good, young team on the rise that will have to say, “Wait until next year”?

“We’re not as deep or as strong as we would like to be right now,” admitted Marsala, who guided the Stingrays to the state finals in 2014 and then to the semifinals in 2016 before turning the reins over to Reidy last year. “Most games, we’re playing three freshmen and three sophomores. We’re doing very, very well. The improvement and the growth has been outstanding.

“We never thought we’d be that young, but we are. And it bodes well for the future also.”

Hurley happy to help however he can

Matt Hurley’s days as a Seacrest pitcher are over, though he still has a college career to look forward to once he’s completed his comeback from Tommy John surgery.

He could’ve spent his entire senior season feeling sorry for himself. Would you have blamed him?

His teammates, however, wouldn’t let that happen. So right now, Hurley is doing whatever he can from the dugout to boost the Stingrays’ chances in the postseason.

“It was hard, but my teammates were always there for me, so it wasn’t that bad,” he said. “I knew they would have my back during rehab if things got tough. Pretty much, things have been going great (in rehab), and (the team has) been doing great, so not too much to complain about.”

When things got rocky for Espinosa and/or Geiger this season, Hurley was there to make sure their heads were still in the game.

“(He’s) keeping our spirits up when we have a bad inning or a bad outing,” Geiger said.

Hurley hopes whatever support he’s given Espinosa and Geiger will be put to good use in the pressure-packed postseason. 

“I think having another experienced person there kind of helps them because they understand that it’s more than just a game,” said Hurley, whose right arm is stabilized in a brace. “When it comes to this point in the season, it becomes more like a business, and you have to start taking things a little bit more seriously this time of the year.”

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