© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2002
Central's season was over. Dead. Finished. Leave your uniform in the coaches office, and see you at the banquet.
After being outscored 25-6 and losing all three games in the Dunedin Tournament from March 25-28, swept there for the first time, the Bears were 7-11 and no one seemed to care. Or so coach Gary Buel thought.
"Coach told us, "You either fold now or go out there and bust your (posterior),' " junior pitcher Josh Smith said. "I mean, things were bad. We were missing routine ground balls, not making plays.
"He asked us to work as hard as we could," Smith said, "and we've done that."
Indeed. Central's eighth victory in nine games since the Dunedin tourney, an 8-2 romp of Leesburg, captured its second district title in school history on Thursday.
"This district championship means everything," first baseman Sean Steele said. "(After Dunedin) we decided that all of us needed to stay in the game, every pitch, everybody watching. And I think we've been doing a good job of that."
Smith is animated off the field when discussing the 15-12 Bears' resurgence or his pitching style, emphasizing points by smacking the back of one hand into the palm of the other. On the field, he has been workmanlike, winning four times in the late-season push and playoffs.
"He has really given us a second half," Buel said.
Part of Smith's success stems from a solid curve and fastball. Another lies in his quick pace, which keeps hitters off-balance and his fielders alert.
"I'm that kind of pitcher," Smith said. "I want to work quick and get ahead in the count. I don't like slowing down. When batters slow me down, I hate it. I'm one of those pitchers that wants to go out there and throw strikes. I want to get my job done, come in, go back out."
FINALLY: The Bears advanced to regionals for the sixth time in seven years. They did it as district champion for the second time, the other coming in 1999.
Buel told his players before the game he wasn't accepting anything but the bigger trophy this time.
"I told the guys I was tired of taking the runner-up trophy," Buel said. "I told them if we did it again, it was going right in the trash."
GOOD VIBES: Luck and superstition are powerful forces in baseball. They help teams win championships, they prompt otherwise rational players such as Jamie McElfresh and Thomas Lobianco to ask their public address announcer to turn off the classic rock station blaring before the game because it was playing We are the Champions by Queen.
"Too early for that," McElfresh told the announcer.
Buel was sensing some witchery early against Leesburg, too.
In the second inning, centerfielder Arnold Mendoza fielded a soft liner to center and threw in time to force out Jordan Holmes at second base. In the third, with one out and a runner at second, shortstop D.J. Anderson had a Johnathon Holt grounder carom off the heel of his glove for an apparent error. But the ball bounced directly into second baseman McElfresh's glove, who threw to first for the out and squashed a potential rally.
"We got some breaks," Buel said. "I told (coach Jim) Jensen something good was happening because we were getting all the breaks. It's important. You have to have the ball bounce your way to get some things happening."
REDEMPTON: One of the tough parts about being a baseball player is the potentially long wait to atone for a mistake.
Bears leftfielder Ken Zarrillo was in need of a chance on Thursday night after allowing a floating liner to drop for a hit and then skip by for a two-run error in the fifth.
Redemption came quickly for him, however. The second batter in the bottom of the inning, Zarrillo executed a textbook hit-and-run play, flicking a Holt pitch to right field and sending Steele to third. The hit set up a three-run inning and sealed the 8-2 win.
"We had some real nice execution at the plate," Buel said. "That hit-and-run was perfect."
STEELY: Steele has been a late-season boon, providing production from the clean-up spot since returning from a dislocated knee. In 13 regular-season games, the lanky Steele batted .302 with two doubles and a triple. In the district tourney, he went 5-for-6, scored 3 runs and knocked in 1.
"He hits balls where they're pitched," Buel said. "He's not the type that tries to do too much. He comes up in good situations and has really been delivering for us."
Success has been a sweet reward for Steele.
"I'm finally starting to hit now," Steele said. "I get in a little tee work before the game, stay back on the ball, see it good. I'm getting back to where I should have been before I got hurt."