By Jordan Kroeger, SunCoast Sports
ESTERO — Charlotte right fielder Justin Hinchey had the guts to make the play of the season for the Tarpons.
A whole lot of guts.
With runners on first and second base and Charlotte clinging to a one-run lead in the bottom of the seventh inning in Tuesday night’s Region 7A-3 quarterfinal, Joey Mugavero sent a liner towards right field that looked like the game-winning hit for the Wildcats. Instead, Hinchey came dashing in, diving to the grass to scoop the ball away for the third and final out to give Charlotte a 4-3 win over Estero.
It was an amazing catch and a risky one at that, considering if Hinchey missed the ball both runners would have scored to give the Wildcats a dramatic victory. Instead, it was a dramatic win for the Tarpons in a game that literally came down to a matter of inches.
“I was just laying out for the last out,” Hinchey said. “I was just trying to end the game right there.”
Kevin Conway delivered the go-ahead run on an RBI double in the top of the seventh for the Tarpons, who won their first playoff game since 2009 and will host Gulf Coast, which upset Venice 3-0, in next Tuesday’s regional semifinal.
But if it hadn’t been for a switch by coach Lavell Cudjo in the sixth inning, the game could have gone the other way. That’s when Cudjo pinch-hit Hinchey for Logan Tracy in a move that paid huge dividends in the end.
“Do or die right? Do or die,” Cudjo said. “The thing is we made the move with Logan playing right field. We switched him for (Hinchey) because his arm is a little bit better and he has a little more speed. It was the baseball gods, man.”
“I’m excited. I’m almost shaking.”
Conway went 3-for-4 with two doubles and three RBI, hitting an RBI double in the second to tie the game before delivering an RBI ground out in the fourth to put Charlotte up 2-1. But no hit was bigger than his two-out double he ripped down the right field line in the seventh to score Aaron Martins and give Charlotte the final lead.
“I was definitely trying to jump on a fast ball because his curveball was dirty,” Conway said. “I was just trying not to wait around for the offspeed because I knew it was good, so if I got a fast ball I was going to jump on it no matter what count it was.”
Conway’s game-winning hit came off of Estero reliever Thomas Joseph, who suffered the loss in two innings of relief. He came in holding a 3-2 lead in the sixth and allowed the Tarpons to tie the game on Garrett Dunson’s RBI single.
Dunson went 3-for-4 on the night.
FGCU signee Nate Gillen started for the Wildcats and delivered an outing worthy of a win, striking out 10 and giving up just one earned run on five hits. But his defense committed three errors on the night, including in the second inning that set up Conway’s first double.
Kyle Machado, another FGCU commit, started for the Tarpons and also went five innings, giving up three earned runs on three hits and five walks while striking out three. He surrendered an RBI double to Zac McKee in the first and allowed Estero to take the lead on Mugavero’s 2-RBI single in the fifth.
Hunter Grosklos picked up the win in relief, striking out the side in the sixth before holding off the Wildcats in the seventh thanks to some help from Hinchey.
“I’m just excited we get to play another game. I get to be with my kids and they get to be with their teammates. That’s a win-win so I’m happy. Bring on Gulf Coast,” Cudjo said.
CHARLOTTE 4, ESTERO 3
Charlotte 010 101 1 — 4 9 0
Estero 100 020 0 — 3 4 3
WP: Hunter Grosklos. LP: Thomas Joseph. Leading hitters: (CHS) Kevin Conway 3-4, 2 2B, 3 RBI, R; Garrett Dunson 3-4, RBI; (EHS) Joey Mugavero 1-3, BB, 2 RBI; Zac McKee 1-3, 2B, BB, RBI. Records: Charlotte 18-7, Estero 19-8.