GREEN COVE SPRINGS - The Clay High Blue Devils baseball team, compliments of the hot bat of Merrick Rapoza, needed only a single early home run to get the one point, then rode the back of their …
GREEN COVE SPRINGS - The Clay High Blue Devils baseball team, compliments of the hot bat of Merrick Rapoza, needed only a single early home run to get the one point, then rode the back of their defense to notch a 1-0 shutout over Panama City Arnold High on Friday. Clay improved to 9-1.
In the final three innings, the team watched Rapoza go up on the hill as the closer, striking out three batters, including the final Arnold batter to seal win and push the Blue Devils to 8-1 overall.
After an emotional Tuesday afternoon game at the baseball grounds of Jacksonville where Clay handed inter-county rival Oakleaf Knights their first loss of the season, a 6-2 game, it was go to work time in the backyard at Clay High for some Thursday night thunder against the Panama City Beach Arnold High Marlins. Arnold drove across the state with their 4-3 record looking to stop their two game slide.
“Tuesday was one of the most intense games we played all year,” said Clay Head Coach Josh Persinger, who got three runs apiece in the fifth and seventh innings after Oakleaf scored the first runs and held a 2-0 lead to that point. “To come right back, yes they are kids, but it was emotionally draining as coaches. Today when they showed up, we had a small crowd, spring break, everything together was like an energy vampire. I knew we had to bite, scratch, claw; we had to find a way because I knew it’s not going to be pretty, we just have to have more runs when it’s all said and done.”
Against Oakleaf, sophomore pitcher Easton McMahan struck out six and also hit a two run single in the seventh inning for Clay. Cole Carnell had a two run single in the fifth to tie the game at 2-2. Oakleaf scored two in the third off singles to JP Espinosa and Jaythian Arriaga before coupling the hits with stolen bases and a passed ball to go up 2-0.
Two days later against Arnold, Rapoza, the second batter to face the Marlins’ Ethan Gill, was a little off on Gill’s first pitch as he swung and did not connect. But on the second throw, Rapoza extended and got everything he could, sailing the ball into right-center field to clear the fence.
“The kid hung a curve ball and that’s all it takes,” said a very happy Merrick Rapoza. “One hit changed the entire game. 1-0 is all we needed.”
Gill would only give up three hits all evening, walking three, and striking out 10 Blue Devils.
On the mound for the Blue Devils, the first four innings were held out by Elijah Roberts as he faced 16 batters, giving up only two hits and two walks, stiking out five. Rapoza followed Roberts’ lead for the final three innings to keep the stout defense on-point with no walks and no hits.
Asked about his efforts on the pitcher’s mound this season, Rapoza said “I’ve thrown eight innings this season. All eight scoreless, so I have a zero ERA right now. I’m doing good. Tonight, it was just let the defense work. I don’t have to be a big strikeout pitcher, just let the defense work. I have a defense behind me for a reason. 1 V 9; you have to think about it that way.”
The Clay defense was strong when they needed to be, even with the draw of spring break hitting on top of the drain from the Tuesday win.
The rest of the evening, Arnold’s Gill would use his repertoire of pitches at just the right time to keep the Blue Devils guessing in the batter’s box. Also in the first inning, Clay’s Parker Lowrance got on with a single to left field, only to be left on base with nothing to show for the effort. In the bottom of the fifth, Cole Carnell drove a single to right field and could advance no further. Outside of the three walks, the Clay runners never did any further damage. The lone Rapoza run would have to do.
The Marlins walked two batters early, only to have the Clay defense snuff out any hopes for a win as Arnold was handed their third loss in a row.
With a few days down until the next game, Persinger still has work to do finding just the right spot for everyone.
“Literally, there are 13-14 guys I have who can all play," said Persinger. "I had a third baseman playing left field to start out. I’m just trying to get the defense and who is pitching and all that sorted out. I’m not even close and I don’t even know if I’ll have it figured out in districts.”
Clay (9-1) Upcoming games
Tues., March 21 at Bartram Trail (5-7)
Thurs., March 23 vs. Ponte Vedra (7-4)
Fri., March 24 vs. Middleburg (1-7)
Tues., March 28 vs. Trinity Christian (6-2)
Thurs., March 30 vs. Orange Park (5-4)
Fri., March 31 at Fleming Island (8-1)
Oakleaf (8-1) Upcoming games
Tues, March 21 vs. Santa Fe (7-2)
Wed., March 22 vs. SJCDS (8-2)
Fri., March 24 at Ponte Vedra (7-4)
Mon., March 27 vs. Flagler Palm Coast (6-4)
Tues., March 28 at Middleburg (1-7)
Area teams high in state ranks
(as of March 16)
Clay High baseball, after their 6-2 win over previously unbeaten Oakleaf, jumped 13 places to be ranked 10th in Florida, according to the latest Maxpreps.com Florida baseball rankings.
With IMG Academy of Bradenton the top ranked program in Florida at 10-0 and with a strength of schedule rating of 10.8, the top three teams in Florida; IMG, Stoneman Douglas (7A defending champion) and Archbishop McCarthy, both 9-0 and with strength of schedules of 10.0 are all established as the best teams based on MaxPreps goal of ranking teams based on wins and losses plus opponents within those records.
According to Maxpreps, the ranking system utilizes the huge number of game results stored in the MaxPreps database. Generally, the more a team wins, the higher the ranking. However, the system takes into account quality wins (against other highly ranked opponents) and strength of schedule.
For 5A-Clay, 8-1 after their win over unbeaten Oakleaf, jumped 13 points to 10th in Florida with a 7.4 strength of schedule rating. Clay is third ranked in Class 5A; Ridgeview at 11th, behind Archbishop McCarthy of Fort Lauderdale and Tampa Jesuit.
Oakleaf, 11th in Class 6A, dropped 18 spots with the Clay loss and sits at 43rd statewide.
St. Johns Country Day School, second in Class 2A to Canterbury (Fort Myers), jumped 12 spots to 20th with their 8-2 record and 8.3 strength of schedule. Spartans coach Tom Lucas has never backed down from a tough schedule and has, in the future, Oakleaf, Providence (twice), Fleming Island, Trinity Christian, Clay, Trinity Christian and Bishop Kenny (beat Clay).
Fleming Island, also 8-1 and ranked 6th in Class 6A, but with a 5.7 strength of schedule, sits at 31st with a 27 spot jump after six wins in the last seven games; a loss to 11th-ranked Providence, and wins over Bolles, Spruce Creek and Buchholz (54th).
Clay and Fleming Island are scheduled to play a rained out game on March 31 and that will jumble the rankings even more.
In Class 3A, Keystone Heights at 5-2, is ranked 16th in the class with the likes of Trinity Christian Academy (6-2, 9th), Providence (9-2, 2nd) and Fernandina Beach (7-3, 17th) around the Indians.
Keystone Heights has such high-ranks as Baker County (6-2, 2nd in 4A), Fernandina Beach and North Marion (6-3, 4th in 4A) in the second half of their schedule.