By Bryan Levine, SunCoast Sports
PUNTA GORDA — A five-walk rally in the seventh inning put Gulf Coast on the brink of a collapse, but Charlotte couldn’t find a hit to complete the comeback.
The Sharks nearly let a gem from starting pitcher Niels Stone go to waste, hanging on to escape Tuesday night’s Region 7A-3 semifinal with a 3-2 win.
“That’s tough, but the boys didn’t quit, though,” Charlotte coach Lavell Cudjo said. “Tip your hat to their pitcher. He did a great job. But I’m proud of my boys for not quitting. They could’ve just said, ‘oh, down three runs.’ ”
Stone turned it over to his bullpen after 6 1/3 strong innings, but not before issuing a pair of walks to the Tarpons. Relievers Luke Dawson and Zach Lang made things interesting, as they combined to walk the next three Tarpon batters.
Robert Oettinger and Kevin Conway drew run-scoring walks to bring the score to 3-2 with the bases still loaded and just one out.
Lang killed the Tarpons’ threat by getting Aaron Martins to fly out to shallow left and then Chris Naskale to fly out to right field, which nearly dropped in for a base hit if not for a sliding catch by Andrew Shivak.
“I told them we’re going to take a pitch,” Cudjo said of the walk-only rally. “It’s about base runners. We had our chance.”
That was the extent of the excitement for Charlotte, which never managed to put consecutive batters on base against Stone until the seventh.
Leadoff man Garrett Dunson went 3-for-3 with three singles and No. 3 Kyle Machado reached base four times. But Lavell Cudjo Jr. batting second and Robert Oettinger hitting cleanup went 0-for-7 with five strikeouts.
“Stone did an outstanding job,” Gulf Coast coach Pete Garcia said. “He’s done it all year.”
Machado, Charlotte’s starting pitcher, just didn’t have his A-stuff Tuesday night.
A two-run double for Drake Dobyanski in the fourth inning scored Colin Camarrigg and Emil Valenzuela to give Gulf Coast a 3-0 lead, which had the feeling of a 10-run lead at the time based on the way Stone was pitching.
Jaimie Soto put the Sharks on the board early in the night with a solo homer in the first inning.
“In the first inning, when you score a run and you’re the visiting team, you kind of set the tone,” Garcia said. “I think we did that. We talked about getting to their starting pitcher, and we got rid of him early, but give their reliever a lot of credit because he came in and shut us down.”
Machado lasted just 3 1/3 innings, allowing three runs on five hits with three walks and two strikeouts, before Cudjo turned to the pen.
Chris Naskale’s double in the second inning represented the only extra-base hit of the night for the Tarpons.
Hunter Grosklos had a strong relief outing for Charlotte. The junior kept the Sharks scoreless in 3 2/3 innings of work, allowing just a pair of hits along the way.
Gulf Coast will go on to face Sunlake — an 8-1 winner over Northeast — in the regional finals.
GULF COAST 3, CHARLOTTE 2
Gulf Coast 100 200 0 – 3 7 1
Charlotte 000 000 2 – 2 6 1
WP: Niels Stone. LP: Kyle Machado. Leading hitters: (GC) Jaimie Soto 1-4, HR; Drake Dobyanski 1-4, 2 RBI; (CH) Garrett Dunson 3-3, R. Records: Gulf Coast 22-8, Charlotte 19-8.