CARY, N.C.—Somewhere beneath a muddled mess of mental mistakes, pickoffs and errors, a winner emerged from Thursday’s quarterfinal action on Field 3 at the USA Baseball National Training Complex.
That winner was Coral Springs, by a score of 4-2, and they earned the victory with the help of Huntsville’s third error and a poor decision immediately afterward.
With Chris Bec on first after a bloop hit to right, Justin Neo laid down a sacrifice bunt. Pitcher Graham Ashcraft threw the ball away, putting runners at the corners.
Leadoff man Pemron Burrows then smoked a line drive off Ashcraft’s glove and through the vacated hole at shortstop that scored the go-ahead run and put another runner at third. James Buckley followed with a grounder that second baseman Zac Neumann threw home too late, giving Coral Springs its insurance run.
With the win, Coral Springs advanced to the semifinal against Clovis High—which features Jacob Gatewood, a shortstop with the potential to be drafted in the first round in June, to be played Thursday evening.
Even with the star power awaiting them, Cleveland and his team remained focused and undaunted following their win.
“We don’t talk about the team we’re playing as much, no disrespect to anybody,” Coral Springs head coach Matt Cleveland said. “These teams are all great, so all we’ve got to do is play baseball. The game will show you what you’ve got to do.”
Obscured by the sloppy play was the outstanding outing turned in by Coral Springs starter Eric Hepple. He used a fastball in the mid-80s and a hard-biting curve to hold Huntsville to just five hits. He walked three and fanned five.
“It’s great. Eric’s thrown a lot of games for me over the last couple of years, and I never really worry about him losing his emotions,” Cleveland said. “He struggled a little in the first inning and gave up a couple of runs but settled back in. I can tell you—he’ll tell you—he didn’t have his best stuff, struggled with his command a little bit, but nothing seems to affect him. He’s a bulldog and a gamer.”
Hepple agreed with his coach, saying that he’s worked over the years to become a better, more stoic pitcher.
“First couple years of pitching, I used to get into my emotions, lose my head a little,” he explained. “Ever since I came here, he’s taught me how to play the game the right way (and) never let the game get the best of you.”
Coral Springs tied the game in the fourth when, after a single and a two-base pickoff error from Huntsville starter Logan Storey had put Neo on third, Burrows snuck a hit through the middle.
That came an inning after they opened their scoring on a two-out RBI single from Joey DePalo that scored Buckley, who started the inning with a walk, from third.
Chase Lovell and Zac Neumann kickstarted their team’s half of the first with a hit by pitch and a sharp single through the left side. Brewer Hicklen’s sac fly to center pushed Lovell to third. A Hepple wild pitch brought Lovell home, and an errant throw to third on the same play by catcher Benito Santiago allowed Neumann to scamper in.
Coral Springs had a rally cooking in the second with runners and first and second and one out, but DePalo allowed himself to be picked off second by Hicklen, and a fly to center a batter later ended the inning.
Not to be outdone, Huntsville also ran itself out of a rally in the next inning. With a 2-2 count, Cole Prestegard took a ball, lost the count and started walking to first. Cameron Aaron, already on first with a hit, started trotting to second. Santiago, realizing the situation, picked a confused Aaron off first. Prestegard whiffed on the next pitch.