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Crowd creates seventh-inning magic


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 17, 2001

Legends Field woke up Wednesday afternoon.

After two uneventful days -- with apologies to the Class A and 2A champs -- a team and a crowd decked out in green made the stadium come alive.

It let you feel and hear a baseball game rather than just see it. A day after the defending Class A state champions, Jacksonville Arlington Country Day, played for a title in front of 30 or so of their fans, Tampa Catholic's faithful reminded you of why you came. They reminded you of much more, too, willing their team to a thrilling seventh-inning rally that might have been the best in recent state tournament history. They reminded you it's okay to follow your team here, to scream, to paint your face, to dye your hair green, to clip tea bags to your shirt in honor of your favorite player (in this case, Tony "T-Bag" Moscato).

They reminded you, fittingly enough in Yankee Stadium South, that it ain't over 'til it's over. They broke the silence that had been Legends Field.

"There was energy," Moscato said. "It was incredible."

Rub the daze out of your eyes and sit up straight.

The state baseball tournament has started. Some will tell you it started Monday, and there were trophies and medals handed out to prove it; some nice plays, some hard hits, some good games.

But let's be honest. The tournament officially started Wednesday afternoon, sometime after Marianna's Alan Horne threw his last warmup pitch in the seventh inning and Tampa Catholic's Brian Nowotny took his first swing.

It was a hit. And there were others that inning. Six more to be exact. Marianna's 7-2 lead shrunk. The noise did not.

Kids in khaki shorts and T-shirts with the names Moscato, Shirk and Cleveland crudely scrawled across the back stood up and waved their arms in the hot sun. Parents clapped wildly from the shade a few rows up.

The game, as improbable as it seemed when the bottom of the seventh inning began, was tied.

"Energy," TC coach Chuck Yingling said.

Horne, the Marianna ace, had none. Coach Scott Miller visited him once during the inning and decided to stay with him. Said he was fine.

This was not the same pitcher who beat Tampa Catholic two years ago 1-0 in the same semifinals on this same field. He was not even the same guy he was early on, when he held the Crusaders to three hits through the first six innings.

But "he's the one that got us here," Miller said. "He's battled many, many times with his back against the wall. With the game on the line, that's who we wanted out there."

Which was fine with Tampa Catholic. Its players weren't impressed anymore. Nowotny had done it once, starting the inning with a hit. Why not again?

Why not?

In 1996, the Crusaders won a state title, but there was a semifinal first. In it, they found themselves down 7-3 going into the seventh inning. Jimmie Giles hit a curling grand slam at Sarasota's Ed White Stadium to tie Pensacola Catholic. One hit and two walks later, Vince Lopez singled in the game-winner.

Then Vince Lopez.

Now Brian Nowotny.

Tampa Catholic magic -- in the name of the Father, the Son and the bases-loaded hit.

Legends Field erupted. It screamed. It squealed. It felt like what an actual state semifinal should feel like.

It was contagious. Cape Coral and Daytona Beach Seabreeze followed with a thriller in the 4A semifinal, and Clearwater played later Wednesday. Tampa Catholic will play for the 3A championship today. Seminole rolls into town Friday for the 5A games.

Bring all ye faithful, in Tornado red, Crusader green and Warhawk orange.

And wake up.

The state baseball tournament has started.

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