When it comes to high school baseball in Hillsborough County, the big question is, who’s next?
Which team will be the one to break through this year?
A season ago, Durant made it to the state championship game, while King, Jesuit and Cambridge Christian advanced to the state semifinals.
Jesuit, once again, has a solid team, while Plant, Steinbrenner and a host of others look to be poised to make a run at the state playoffs.
As for players, standout performances by Tyler Danish of Durant and King’s Brett Morales highlighted the 2013 season.
This season, Alonso pitcher Alex Faedo and Plant’s Kyle Tucker (center fielder) and Jake Woodford (pitcher) are just a few of the names to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
One thing about Hillsborough County baseball is a given: It should be a competitive season with many standout performances.
The high school baseball season begins today and The Tribune brings you a seven-inning breakdown of a few of the things the upcoming season has to offer (peanuts and Cracker Jack not included).
First Inning: Pitching
It’s been the dominant force in area high school baseball, even before the change in bats three seasons ago. Standouts like Jose Fernandez (Marlins), Lance McCullers Jr. (Astros minor-leaguer) and Tyler Danish (White Sox minor-leaguer) are just a few in the recent years to pitch locally.
Here are a few to keep an eye on this season:
Alex Faedo, Alonso – The Ravens’ ace went 8-2 in 2013, with a 1.14 ERA and 87 strikeouts. Continuing a long line of dominant Alonso starters, the Florida commit gives his team a big advantage with a 90s fastball from his 6-foot-5, 210-pound frame. Oh, and there was that 17-strikeout game Faedo posted in the Saladino Tournament win over Plant City last season.
Jake Woodford, Plant – The junior was 3-1 last season with a 0.86 ERA and 45 strikeouts. The 6-foot-4 righty posted a fastball in the 90-mph range at the Perfect Game World Wood Bat Association tournament last summer.
Troy Bacon, Sickles – The junior’s 2-4 record last season might be easy to glance over, but those numbers don’t factor in the workhorse dependability of the 6-foot righty, who posted 62 strikeouts in 52 innings. Gryphons coach Bob Pagano calls Bacon, the “whole package” saying he has a fastball in the 90s coupled with a devastating change-up to go a long with a good curve and a number of other pitches.
Others to watch: Logan Crouse, Bloomingdale; Clayton Smith, Tampa Catholic; Hunter Van Horn, Jesuit; Antonio Velez, Brandon.
Second Inning: Catchers
Here is a look at a few of Hillsborough County’s best behind the dish:
Ryan McCullers, Jesuit – The senior backstop is a vocal leader and captain for the Tigers and a player Jesuit coach Richie Warren said, “When you look at your roster, Ryan is the guy you have to have.” McCullers, a Middle Tennessee State signee, is also a force at the plate and will serve as the three-hole hitter after posting a .424 average last year with 28 runs scored and 26 RBIs.
Luis Medina, Tampa Prep – The sophomore catcher had a breakout freshman season, hitting .461 with 11 RBIs, while managing a staff that posted a 2.65 ERA and reached the region final.
Jesus Vega, Hillsborough – The senior is solid behind the plate as well as with the bat and will be called on to be a leader in both departments for the Terriers this season. Vega hit .295 last season with a team-leading 18 RBIs.
Third Inning: Speed
Here’s a few players who will have pitchers looking over their shoulders this season:
Diamond Johnson, Hillsborough – The center fielder stole 21 bases last season while hitting .328 with 25 runs scored and 16 RBIs. A St. Petersburg College commit, Johnson has a solid glove, made better by the range he can cover.
Garrett Wright, Durant – The center fielder scored 19 runs for the Class 8A state finalists last season and added 17 stolen bases. He’ll be a table setter for Durant hitters Paxton Sims and Luke Heyer for what should be a very good team newly moved to Class 7A.
Kevin Merrell, Steinbrenner – In a lineup with the hitting potency of the Warriors, the 15 stolen bases he had last season is a pretty good number. Merrell, a South Florida commit, also set a school record last season with 41 hits, finishing the season batting .458 and 28 runs scored.
Others to watch: Kevin Buckley, King; Ryan Mejia, Alonso.
Fourth Inning: Power
Here are just a few of the hitters who will try to make life miserable for pitchers this season.:
Kyle Tucker, Plant – Panthers coach Dennis Braun said his junior center fielder is “the best hitter I’ll ever coach,” and the University of Florida verbal commit showed it last season with a .556 batting average, 29 runs scored, 26 RBIs, seven doubles and nine home runs.
Cole Gordon, Steinbrenner – The Mississippi State commit likely will serve primarily as a designated hitter this season and has a lot of power. Last season, he had a .433 average, scored 30 runs, drove in 33 and belted seven home runs.
Levi Gilcrease, Sickles – The Baylor commit played center field for Cambridge Christian last season, helping the Lancers to the Class 2A state semifinals. He hit .493 with 34 runs scored, 14 RBIs, nine doubles, seven home runs and 19 stolen bases.
Others to watch: Mijon Cummings, Steinbrenner; Alex Hanson, Steinbrenner; Luke Heyer, Durant; Paulie Russo, Tampa Catholic; Connor Slagill, Plant City.
Fifth Inning: Defense up the middle
“Defense wins championships” is not just for football. It might not draw the attention like a 90-mph fastball or a home run swing, but a strong glove, especially up the middle, can be the biggest difference in the game.
Brandon – Second baseman Austin Sullivan and shortstop Drayden Williams are a strong double-play combination. The Eagles also will use Williams as a pitcher, but they won’t lose much in the way of fielding ability, turning to third baseman Jordan Feist’s strong glove at short in that situation.
Tampa Prep – The Terrapins have four-year starters Nick DeTringo and Matt Fulton at second and shortstop, and center fielder Matt Hodges backing up starting pitching from Sam Martin and Watson Ransom.
Jefferson – Second baseman Jose Cuellar and shortstop Jony Gonzalez are a pair of seniors who lead a Dragons squad known for its excellent fielding.
Sixth Inning: Versatility
At the next level, players are forced to decide between one position or another. But in high school, sometimes the most valuable thing is a player who excels no matter where a coach puts him. Here are a few of those utility players:
Chris Figueredo, Hillsborough – The Terriers will have to replace some senior arms and Figueredo will be key as the go-to No. 1. But the junior who went 5-1 last season with a 2.15 ERA will also be needed at the plate, where he hit .344 with 14 runs and 14 RBIs, and in the infield on his non-pitching days.
Nelson Maldonado, Jefferson – The senior is a ball hawk in the outfield for a talented defensive team and has a solid bat, but coach Pop Cuesta said his team also will need his arm on the mound this season.
Ryan Anderson, Brandon – The outfielder will be in a 1A-1B situation at the top of the rotation with lefty Antonio Velez, but the experience he brings to the team wherever he is posted might be his biggest value. Last season’s highlights for Anderson included a five-inning no-hitter against Tampa Bay Tech.
Seventh Inning: Coaching farewell
This season marks the final one in the coaching career of the only skipper in Gaither history, Frank Permuy. Permuy announced last year that 2014 would be his final season and he said that hasn’t changed. This summer, Permuy was inducted into the National High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. In his 30 years at Gaither, along with stints at Tampa Catholic and Leto, Permuy has 534 wins. He also is a member of the FHSAA and FACA Hall of Fame.
— Compiled by JARRETT GUTHRIE