By Scott Lockwood, SunCoast Sports
VENICE — Over the second half of the regular season, the Venice Indians offense struggled to come up with key hits with runners in scoring position.
That changed in Tuesday’s District 7A-11 baseball semifinal matchup against North Port. Two big hits in the first couple of innings gave the Indians an early lead they’d never relinquish, and Caleb Williams struck out 10 Bobcat hitters in a 4-0 Venice victory that sealed up a spot in next week’s regional tournament.
Jake Starck and Shane Shifflett both singled off North Port’s Charlie Topp in the bottom of the first. As Starck crossed the plate, Shifflett was making a beeline toward second. The throw from Bobcats catcher Nathan Vetter sailed into the outfield and toward the wall and Shifflett scored by the time the ball got back to the plate.
“I hit the ball and I’m automatically thinking go to second base and seeing where that throw was going,” Shifflett said. “It was going past the cutoff so I went straight to second. I was standing on second and I saw the ball go past me and I knew I was going home.”
Infield singles by Ramon Cordero and Danny Rodriguez set the table for Mitch Donofrio in the bottom of the second. Donofrio laced a shot down the line for a two-run double that put the Bobcats in a bind that they’d never recover from.
“You can’t make mistakes against a team of that caliber,” North Port coach Dan Pavlue said. “We had some mistakes at the wrong time and found ourselves in a hole. It certainly didn’t help.”
Williams gave up a leadoff single to Charlie Davidson before retiring the next 11 Bobcat hitters he faced. Williams said the early lead helped him get into a rhythm that kept North Port out of sync all night. He held the Bobcats to just four hits, two of which came in the final two innings.
“Caleb is a talented pitcher and he’s going to be pitching a lot more games in his baseball career,” Pavlue said. “He did a good job of keeping us off balance and throwing our timing off. We just didn’t make enough adjustments to get to him.”
Davidson had half of North Port’s hits. Topp went the distance in the loss for the Bobcats, who finish the season at 11-15.
“The kids battled and I’m proud of them for that,” Pavlue said. “After a rough start they settled down and we got some quality innings from Charlie, which was good to see him come back from and injury and throw well. He threw a great game despite a few blunders on defense. The guys worked hard and didn’t give up.”
Venice’s road to its sixth straight appearance in the state finals begins when it hosts Charlotte for the district title at 7 p.m. on Thursday. The Indians (20-7) have earned at least a berth in the regional playoffs every year since 2010.
“We’ve had quite a run of getting into regional play,” Venice coach Craig Faulkner said. “It’s not an accident and these guys have been working all year to win this game tonight. Every game we’ve played was to get ready for tonight. I like what we did and we’re excited to be where we’re at.”
VENICE 4, NORTH PORT 0
North Port 000 000 0 – 0 4 2
Venice 220 000 X – 4 10 0
WP: Caleb Williams. LP: Charlie Topp. Leading hitters: (NP) Charlie Davidson 2-3. (V) Danny Rodriguez 3-3, R; Shane Shifflett 2-3, RBI, R; Mitch Donofrio 1-3, 2B, 2 RBI. Records: Venice 20-7, North Port 11-15.