Hernando coaches and volunteers worked feverishly to make sure Emerson Field was playable following Friday’s early evening shower.
A Class 5A, District 7 contest with Eustis, which had already made the long journey from Lake County, was far too important to put on hold.
So after roughly an hour delay, the top two teams in the district battled it out for the second time this season, and again the Panthers found a way to solve the host Leopards, holding them off for a 3-2 victory.
The win assures that Eustis (11-2 overall, 8-0 5A-7) will claim the top seed in next month’s district tournament.
Hernando (10-3 overall, 6-2 5A-7), which lost in Eustis on March 5, 8-3, likewise locked up the second seed.
Of course, these two clubs were 1-2 in last year’s 5A-7 Tournament, only to each get knocked off by fifth-seeded Tavares.
The senior Lawson, a USF signee, didn’t play at all this time around. Hernando head coach Tim Sims would not go into detail, terming it only a “coach’s decision.”
Instead right-hander Kyle Kilbourne took the ball, and acquitted himself nicely, tossing six-plus innings, allowing three runs on eight hits. He walked none, though he did hit four batters, and struck out two.
“He threw all three pitches aggressively,” Sims said. “He’s been tentative a couple times he’s come in. He’s thrown well and when he’s thrown well he’s been aggressive, and he did a good job tonight of being aggressive. He kept them off-balance.”
He got touched up for a couple of runs in the top of the second inning. Jeremy Migliori hit a sharp single off the glove of diving first baseman Brooks Timmons, plating a pair.
Kilbourne wiggled out of a two-out, bases-loaded jam to avoid further damage that frame, and held the Panthers scoreless over the next four innings.
The Leopards, however, had trouble cracking left-hander Wesley Moulden. He had faced the minimum through three innings without giving up a hit, until Christian Arroyo led off the bottom of the fourth with a booming triple off the fence in right-center.
Arroyo immediately came home on Timmons’ groundout to second.
In the sixth, Arroyo knotted up the score after Andrew Zabriskie worked a walk and advanced to second on a passed ball. Going the other way, Arroyo grounded a base hit through the right side of the infield, driving in Zabriskie.
That tie was short-lived. Jonathan Mosos and Chris Okey opened the top of the seventh with singles to knock out Kilbourne.
Rich Wilkes relieved and recorded two harmless outs, but Zac Johnson doubled into the left-center field gap to plate Mosos.
Eloy Ramirez’s single to shallow right put Ratliff on third with one out.
During the next at-bat, Sims, coaching third, said he put on a safety squeeze. The bunt never got down, and Ratliff slipped between third and home, getting caught in a rundown.
After Ratliff was tagged out, Mosos, who relieved Moulden following Arroyo’s single in the sixth, registered a called strike three on the next pitch to end it.
Going back to Thursday’s 1-0 win over Central, the Leopards have totaled five hits over their last two games, three of them by Arroyo. Still, Sims felt his squad put together better at-bats against Eustis.
“We’re seeing everybody’s number one (pitcher), district games, non-district games, whatever,” Sims said. “When you have the bull’s eye on your back, you better get used to it.
“That’s (Moulden) actually not their number one, but he’s pretty good. Eustis is in a different league than our neck of the woods.
“I’m very proud of the way we competed. Tonight was more indicative of where we want the team to play and what we’re capable of playing every day.”
Eustis 3, Hernando 2