FLEMING ISLAND – Fleming Island High baseball has been riding the arms and legs of senior Zack Mercer all year with the wily senior pushing his Golden Eagles team to a second consecutive district 2-8A title, but the magic stopped about a foot short in Fleming Island’s 5-1 region 1-8A quarterfinal playoff loss to Tallahassee Chiles on Tues., May 15 at Fleming Island High School.
“It would have been nice to get that one out,” said Mercer, after his late inning double hit just below the top of the left field fence, “A double is nice, but a homer would have been a bigger spark.”
Fleming Island, under second year coach Grant Bigilin, once again surged at the season’s end to push an 11-1 regular season record that stopped from being a perfect 12-0 finish with a 1-0, nine inning loss to Bartram Trail as the season’s final game. Bartram Trail, the district 4-7A champion over Creekside, is set to play Creekside in their region 1-7A semifinal on Sat., May 18.
“I agree that Zack hitting that ball was big,” said Bigilin. “It says 5-1, but it felt like a 2-1 game going into the seventh. We just have to come up with the hits. Their guy got a great jump on a big hit for us and that’s what it took.”
Fleming Island finishes at 19-8 overall while Chiles (15-13) continues into the region with a semifinal game against district 2-8A runnerup Atlantic Coast High on Sat., May 18. Atlantic Coast beat Lincoln 3-1 in their region opener to advance. Wiregrass Ranch and Strawberry Crest, last year’s region champion over Fleming Island, play in the opposite region semifinal.
Mercer, who went the first seven innings on the mound, held the Chiles batting lineup to just one run into the ninth inning with the Golden Eagles infield defense playing spectacular ball with a Noah McCollum double play in the second inning with bases loaded and a second double play with bases loaded in the fifth with second baseman Dylan Bonham handling the assist at second base.
“This is a special team; a special brotherhood here,” said Mercer. “We have come up with big plays all season.”
In the third, Chiles notched their first run off an error-filled effort that had two passed balls and an infield error scoring the Timberwolves a 1-0 lead.
The Golden Eagle offense struggled to get baserunners against Chiles’ pitcher Ben Gurley until the bottom of the fifth with Bonham singling and stealing second base to set up a dramatic at-bat to Jack Gidcumb after two flyouts. Gidcumb battled with Gurley through eight pitches and three foul balls before connecting on a hard grounder through the second base hole to score Bonham.
“Great young player, has a good family baseball history, “said Bigilin. “That ball was a big hit for us.”
In the top of seventh, reliever Jacob Asdot entered the game with Mercer walking his final batter who stole second to set up a potential gamewinner, but Asdot issued his first strikeout of the night to squash the threat.
“I was still feeling good, but I had to go because of pitch county,” said Mercer. “I would have liked to finish.”
Bigilin was confident of Asdot, but was torn between him and left Aidan Mastatuno.
“They got the leadoff walk and then had a string of lefty hitters,” said Bigilin. “When Jacob walked the first guy, I had to match up our lefty pitcher with their lefty hitters.”
In their final at bat, Fleming Island answered with Justin Hawkins hitting a deep grounder into the shortstop hole eliciting no throw and a Bonham bunt putting baserunner Jack Bernard at second base. Scott Kondroik was intentionally walked to set up an all-base defense for Chiles. Aidan Mastantuno, who hit a gamewinning homer in the Golden Eagles district final over Atlantic Coast, struck out before Gidcumb smashed a deep centerfield flyball that got an ESPN chase and catch from Chiles’ centerfielder Sam Rudd.
In the eighth, Asdot gave up a single that got to second, but rightfielder Adam Peck put his own ESPN highlight up with a twisting, running stab of a long fly ball to end the Chiles’ at bat.
“Yes, I did close my eyes a little when he chased it down,” said Bigilin. “He’s a 100 percent fielder and five outfield assists, but I knew he would find a way to get that one.”
Chiles squelched Fleming Island next ups with three batters before unloading off a first batter walk with a just-foul homer from Mason Correa who wound up with a single before a walk loaded the bases. A wild pitch scored one to bring in Mastantuno on the mound for Fleming Island.
Mastantuno gave up a walk and single to the final score, 5-1.
In a dramatic finish, Mercer smashed a long fly to the left field fence that fell just a foot shy of the top of fence to halt him at second base with a double. A groundout to Hawkins set up a Bonham line drive snatched by Chiles’ second baseman Parker McDonald for the second out before twisting and catching Mercer off base for the double play to end the game.