Spartans stun Manta Rays with a comeback rally in final inning

Senior Jaime Robles slides into home plate for the Spartans fifth run, tying the game in the top of the seventh inning. The Spartans played the Lemon Bay Manta Rays in Englewood in a Class 5A regional quarterfinal playoff matchup on Wednesday night. The Spartans three run rally secured a stunning playoff win, sending home and ending the Manta Rays season. (TONY RENGIFO | SNN)

SNN Staff Writer
For a second straight year, the Lakewood Spartans baseball team has stunned the opposing home team in a Class 5A region quarterfinal playoff game.

Last year the Spartans pulled off a stunning win, defeating the-then defending Class 5A state champion Jesuit Tigers, 8-6 in Tampa. This year the Spartans rallied from a two-run deficit in the top of the seventh to stun the home team, the Lemon Bay Manta Rays, 6-5 in Englewood Wednesday night (4/29).

Each team scored a run in the first inning. For the Spartans, senior Sonny Neuman singled to left field to drive in senior Bo Bichette, who walked earlier in the inning to get on base.

The Spartans’ defense was partly at fault for the Manta Rays’ first run, with one error coming in that inning, the first of six errors for the Spartans throughout the game.

But the Manta Rays would only score two runs off the Spartans six errors; this was key for the Spartans, not allowing too many runs to score off of their errors. In the previous game, against the Booker Tornadoes in the Class 5A-District 11 championship, errors led to many runs being scored and the Spartans eventual defeat, 11-2.

With the defense errors by the Spartans and some base hitting by the Manta Rays, the score was a 5-3 Manta Rays lead going into the seventh. Bichette homered in the third inning, a fastball that was thrown outside, for the Spartans second run and scored from third base in the fifth off of freshman Dontae Mitchell’s two-out triple, to score the Spartans third run.

“(I was) pumped. Dontae came up huge,” Bichette said on Mitchell’s RBI triple in the third.

“I got up there knowing I could do it,” Mitchell said. “(The pitch) was perfect. It was right there. I just waited on it and freakin’ smacked it.”

In the top of the seventh, the Manta Rays stuck with their starter, who threw over 100 pitches by the time he was taken out in the middle of the top of the seventh inning.

The Spartans’ offense producing hits and plate discipline along with an error by the Manta Rays first baseman allowed them to score three runs in the top of the inning. With bases loaded, Mitchell walked to bring in freshman Anthony Hudson. Now 5-4, Neuman was up at the plate looking to tie or take the lead in the game. Hitting a groundball to first, the first baseman tried for the force out at home, but threw it in the dirt allowing senior Jaime Robles, who singled to get on base, to slide in at home for the Spartans’ fifth run, tying the game. Senior Vinny Grybauskas, next, would hit a slow ground ball to the second baseman, allowing for Bichette to score from third, getting the Spartans that sixth run.

O’Dowd went back in the game in the seventh inning, having also pitched over 100 pitches, to finish the game. After allowing some hits and having a shaky defense that allowed five runs, O’Dowd shut down the Manta Rays the last couple innings, throwing a three-up-three-down seventh inning, with the game ending on a soft line drive caught by shortstop Bichette.

“I tried to keep us in the game. They had decent hitters, who made timely contact. I put trust in the fielders, and they made a couple errors, but in the end it didn’t hurt us. In the end the (defense) came through,” O’Dowd said.

 “It’s awesome. I looked at Sonny after the game, told him ‘Man, it feels good to be on the field this time,” said Bichette, who missed last year’s quarterfinal playoff game with an injury that left him off the field for the second half of the Spartans season last year.

Though only getting one hit, which was his homerun, Bichette scored four times. Bichette walked three times, eventually scoring every time.

“I’m proud of them for getting runs. I’m just proud of them,” former Lakewood baseball player and graduate Vincent Iacone said, watching the team celebrate with each other right after the stunning win.

“Good team win boys, big team win. Everyone did their part,” assistant coach Andrew Black said to the team afterwards.

“(It was) all heart. The team pulling everyone together, making sure we didn’t fall from the obvious mistakes we made. We could have quit. We had our normal meltdown, then they stood even. I kept telling them there’s the fifth, sixth, seventh, we still have at-bats. I told guys to relax when things got tense, to slow things down. I think that took the stress off them,” head coach Jayce Ganchou said. “Then I went up to Aiden (to tell him that). He said to me ‘I got it’.”

The Spartans, now with an even 13-13 record, will head back to Sarasota on Tuesday to play district rival, the Booker Tornadoes (20-8), in a regional semi-final game; the Spartans will be looking for revenge after their lopsided loss to Booker in their district championship game last week.

Freshman Aiden O'Dowd pitches during a game against the Lemon Bay Manta Rays in Englewood on Wednesday night. O'Dowd ended up going the full distance, pitching a complete game to get the Spartans that 6-5 victory in the final inning. O'Dowd retired the last seven batters he faced, ending the game with two innings of three up three down. (TONY RENGIFO | SNN)