Creekside (21-7) eliminated St. Augustine (18-12) in an intra-county regional playoff game at Flagler College’s Drysdale Field.
Two thousand, five hundred and fifty five minutes after he was scheduled to start, St. Augustine's Nick Phifer delivered the first pitch.
It was an 84-mph fastball over the outside corner that Creekside’s Connor Hults flipped toward short.
The two would meet again. Their roles would be reversed; but, before they did, the Knights and St. Augustine played nine high-stakes innings in an FHSAA Region 1-7A baseball semifinal.
Creekside staved off the top of the St. Augustine order to win 3-2 in extra innings on a rainy Thursday afternoon at Drysdale Field at the Flagler College Athletic Complex.
Mark Castle’s infield single was enough to bring in Nick Tripp with the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth.
Tripp and the Knights advance to their fourth regional final in the last six years. Creekside (21-7) travels to the panhandle to face Pace (22-6) on Tuesday.
The last varsity baseball game played in St. Johns County this spring may have been one of the best.
St. Augustine (18-12) was inches away from its third seventh-inning stunner in its last four games.
With Jalen Steiger on first with one out in the seventh, Creekside intentionally walked Phifer — a hitter who had game-winning extra-base hits against Nease and Gainesville this postseason and a game-altering home run against the Knights in the 2017 playoffs. Brogan Napier hit a solid single to left field. St. Augustine coach Kevin Hayes did not hesitate to send Steiger home from second base.
Hults fielded the baseball and flung home as hard as he could. The throw was slightly toward first. Catcher Ty Angevine caught it on the hop and lunged to his left to tag out Steiger millimeters from the plate.
Thursday’s game was at Drysdale Field because St. Augustine's field has been deluged with downpours throughout the week.
Drysdale has a turf infield, which allowed the Yellow Jackets and Knights to play a game that was originally scheduled for Tuesday night. Drysdale Field's outfield is bigger than most high school parks, as is its foul territory.
Rain trickled down like economics the last time St. Augustine High hosted a home playoff game. Minutes before Phifer’s first pitch the skies opened up. Thunder threatened but lightning never arrived at the ballpark.
Creekside’s Josh Frisbee laced a single in the top of the first. He came home two batters later when Daniel Cantu hit a double to the gap in left-center. St. Augustine misplayed the ball and Cantu was able to scamper home with an early 2-0 lead.
Cantu feasted on Yellow Jackets pitching all season long. He entered Thursday’s game hitting .363 (4 for 11) with four RBIs and two runs scored in three games against the Yellow Jackets. However, his first-inning double was the only time he reached base against Phifer and reliever Steiger.
Tres Corrigan said the St. Augustine baseball team of his freshman year would have lost by 10 runs after falling behind early and allowing an unearned run.
The Yellow Jackets have come a long way in his four years in the program, and that was emblematic, Corrigan said, of how he and his teammates played.
“We kept our head in the game,” Corrigan said. “We know we’re good enough to come back and beat a team like Creekside and just not give up.”
Giving up was never an option; but scratching together two runs against Creekside starter Hunter Bratek was never going to be easy. In his last two outings against St. Augustine, Bratek struck out a combined 16 hitters and allowed seven hits over 11 innings.
Bratek’s brilliance meant little to St. Augustine’s junior shortstop Jett Lauster, who led off the bottom of the third with a double down the right-field line. He scored when his running pressured the Knights into throwing the baseball around the diamond after Gage Riter’s routine groundout.
Riter took a mid-80s fastball to his right index finger, splitting it open, during his third-inning plate appearance. But, it would have taken more than a throbbing digit to get him from the game. He put black tape on his finger, donned his catching gear and was behind the plate for another six innings.
An opportunity to play at a college baseball stadium, in front of a frenzied crowd was an opportunity that Riter had any intention of watching from the dugout. His grit helped St. Augustine plate its second run in the fifth.
Lauster singled to right. But, Creekside committed a two-base error trying to field the baseball, moving St. Augustine’s shortstop to third with one out.
St. Augustine attempted two plays, but neither worked. Finally, with two strikes, Yellow Jackets baseball coach Kevin Hayes sent Lauster home. Riter hit a bleeder toward third. Cantu’s only play was to retire the catcher, who was more than willing to trade an out for a run.
“Just put the ball in play. Good things will happen when you put the ball in play,” Riter said. “I always heard from Coach Hayes ‘Put the ball in play and good things will happen.’”
Hayes smiled afterward at the thought of the fifth-inning adventure.
“We tried to squeeze. We tried to slash. Gage handles the bat well. I knew (Bratek) was going to come with a strike,” Hayes said. “We put our guy in motion and Gage just has to put the ball in play. That was an unorthodox hit-and-run situation.”
Lauster’s game-tying run was the second unearned run Creekside allowed. Bratek struck out seven and allowed six hits in 5 2/3 innings. He left the game in the sixth after a blister began to develop on one of his fingers. Michael Whalen induced Lauster to hit a meek grounder to third with the bases loaded in the home sixth to set up the dramatic finish.
“I got up there and said ‘This is what you live for. This is the reason you play the game. This is what every little kid dreams of,”’ Castle said. “I got that first pitch fastball. He left it over the plate and I hit it hard somewhere and good things happened.”
Hults came in from left to record the final three outs. He faced Phifer, more than three hours after the two were in inverse positions, and forced him to pop out to first. Castle leaned over a fence and snared the ball with his backhand to end St. Augustine’s season.
Thursday was the final varsity game for Steiger, Corrigan, Andrew Capitano, Kyler Kirwan and Jaden Acanfrio. Together, they helped St. Augustine win its first district title in 27 years, host its first home playoff game since 1984 and win playoff games in consecutive years for the first time in more than nine decades of Yellow Jackets history.
St. Augustine was devastated to lose, but, the Yellow Jackets earned the respect of their opponents. When it was over, Creekside coach Kris King — a Flagler College graduate who made more than his share of memories at Drysdale Field — was doubled over with a combination of exhaustion and exhilaration.