The legendary high school baseball tournament starts Saturday and continues through Wednesday, March 18.
Plant City-area teams had a strong showing in the 2019 Saladino Tournament, and now they’re hoping to do it again in the upcoming 40th annual tourney.
Much like the eventual 8A state championship game, the 2019 Saladino finale was an all-area matchup featuring Plant City High School. The Raiders’ Saladino opponent was Durant, however, as eventual state runner-up Strawberry Crest made it to the tourney quarterfinal but then got eliminated by the Cougars in a 4-3 thriller. Plant City beat Durant, 4-1, but the one-hit, 10-strikeout gem of a complete game by pitcher Jarod Wingo was later forfeit by order of the FHSAA as the Raiders were found to have gone over the mandatory pitch count for 16-year-olds in that game.
The Raiders have a very real chance at winning the whole thing once again in 2020. Plant City is still going strong this season with a 7-1 record, bouncing back from a 6-3 loss at Bloomingdale by picking up four consecutive wins over tough opponents: Crest (3-2 in eight innings Feb. 25), Armwood (3-0 on Feb. 27), Leto (3-1 on March 3) and Durant (8-0 on Tuesday. Wingo, who made the official 2019 All-Tournament Team, currently has an 0.68 ERA and 39 strikeouts (against just one walk) through 20.2 innings pitched. Also returning to the tournament is Pop Cuesta award-winner Mario Williams, who finished the 2019 tourney with a perfect fielding percentage and has improved noticeably in the batter’s box (.316 avg., .480 OBP, five RBI, three doubles, one home run, seven runs scored). Only time will tell if Plant City can get back to the championship round, but the talent and performance level is there.
Durant may not have started the season well, posting back-to-back losses to Plant and Sickles, but the Cougars have since found their groove and have been playing mostly great baseball lately. The team ripped off four consecutive wins after the Feb. 20 loss at Sickles, outscoring opponents 23-3 including shutouts of fellow Gold Division members Newsome (6-0 Feb. 27) and Bloomingdale (3-0 March 5). Junior Austin Sewell is having an excellent season with a .471 batting average, five runs scored, four RBI, two doubles and two triples . What will really help Durant make a run is its pitching staff, which collectively has a 1.52 ERA and is led by one of the county’s better one-two punches in junior starters Alex Canney (0.76 ERA, 21 K, 18.1 IP) and Sean Hermann (1.09 ERA, 19 K, nine hits, one walk, 19.1 IP). A 7-0 loss to Plant City in March 2019 didn’t affect the Cougars in the tournament at all, so no one should be surprised if they can claw their way back to the end of the tourney once again.
Crest has also been rock solid in 2020 and has followed up its last loss (the Feb. 25 Plant City game) with five consecutive wins. The Chargers blew out Riverview (8-3 Feb. 27) and Freedom (12-2 Feb. 28), picked up a 2-0 win over Armwood at home on March 3, won their March 7 Saturday morning showdown with Sickles, 5-4, with a late rally that saw Crest seal the deal with a three-run seventh inning and most recently put up 11 runs in Tuesday’s shutout win over Tampa Bay Tech. This Chargers team is well-rounded for the most part, but its baserunning has been excellent in 2020. Crest has swiped 36 bases this season (almost twice as many as area runner-up Plant City), with speedsters Colby Fanning (10 stolen bases) and Alex Mussenden (eight stolen bases) leading the way, though eight Chargers have gotten on that part of the stat sheet thus far. Fanning and Mussenden are reaching base in more than 43 percent of their plate appearances, and sophomore Anthony Grasso (seven stolen bases, .333 batting average, team-high seven RBI) has also stepped up on this junior-heavy team. If the Chargers can keep getting on base at this rate in the Saladino tourney, they can do some serious damage in the bracket.
Durant, Plant City and Crest are all together in the Gold Division, the tournament’s top level of competition. If Saturday’s games go well, Plant City and Crest could face each other as early as the March 16 quarterfinal round. Durant, which is now in the same section of the bracket as Plant City and Crest, could play an area team in the March 17 semifinal round.
Brandon, Jefferson, King and Lennard are all still hosting the tournament games. Crest and Plant City will both play at King on Saturday: Crest starts with a 4 p.m. game against Newsome and Plant City follows with a 7 p.m. game against Gaither. Durant and Steinbrenner will play at King at 7 p.m. that evening. Game times are subject to change and the tournament will post updates should that be the case.
Visit tonysaladinobaseballtournament.com for more information about the tournament and for GameChanger game links. Real-time updates and coverage throughout the tourney will be provided by 813Preps.com, the tournament’s official media partner.