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Cruz Delivers Shutout For #3 Columbus Over #9 Key West

Gabriel Cruz (11) pitched a complete game shutout for Columbus against Key West.

The Columbus Explorers (6-1) got revenge for last year’s 5-0 loss to the Key West Conchs (4-3) on Tuesday afternoon as senior starting pitcher Gabriel Cruz led the way to a 4-0 victory with a complete game shutout.

Cruz, a Stetson commit, started off strong, retiring the first eight batters he saw without issue. Key West third baseman Gabe Williams singled to interrupt Cruz’s streak, but he only got better from there. Equipped with a fastball in the high 80s that touched 90-91 mph and a slider that was breaking sharply, Cruz struck out nine of the remaining 16 batters he faced to end the night with 11 punchouts.

The Conchs would collect two more singles against him, but Cruz hardly made a mistake all afternoon. The lone blemish on his record was a walk in the top of the seventh with two outs, his first of the season.

“I come into every game with the same attitude, no matter what team we are playing,” Cruz said. “This was obviously a little bit of a tougher team that I’ve pitched against, but it’s still the same attitude. Get as many outs as possible, limit hits and run and that’s exactly what I did.”

After the walk in the seventh, Explorers manager Joe Weber came out to the mound with a decision to make. Cruz was at 95 pitches — FHSAA rules allow 17-year-olds and older to throw 105 in a game — and needed just one out to complete what was already a career day. In truth, Weber would have liked to have gone to the bullpen, but he wasn’t going to disrupt Cruz while he was still dealing.

“I don’t like getting them up there with that many pitches and I just wanted to make sure he wanted to finish,” Weber said. “He assured me he wanted it, so I let him stay. I actually didn’t even want him to start the seventh because of the pitch count. He’s got to turn around on six days of rest this next week to a Monday, but it all worked out good.”

Felix Ong (28) goes four innings plus for Key West against Columbus.

As good as Cruz was, Key West’s Felix Ong matched him for most of the night. Nearly a dozen pro scouts were on hand to see the junior and Florida commit hurl his fastball, and Ong touched 94 mph a few times. He held the Explorers to just two hits through three innings, but Columbus finally broke through in the fourth.

A one-out walk to Frank Francisco started the trouble, and Lester Martinez doubled to put two men in scoring position. Sophomore left fielder Jose Correa singled down the line to score both of them, and that was enough scoring to win what was shaping up to be a pitcher’s duel.

Command seemed to be an issue for Ong as the game continued on. His fastball began to elevate and misplaced breaking balls are always welcomed by talented hitters, even if they come in at 86 mph. His afternoon came to an end in the fifth after giving up a leadoff double, and Andris Barroso took over for the rest of the ball game.

“I missed a spot with that guy (Correa),” Ong said after the game. “I had two guys on. I should have buried that slider in the dirt and I would have had him, I think. But it’s out of my control after the ball is released from my hand. It wasn’t our best appearance, but we’re going to get it back.”

Barroso ended up getting out of the fifth without allowing the runner on second to score, but he’d run into some trouble on his own in the sixth. Another leadoff double and walk to Francisco put two men on, and both came around to score after Correa hit into a fielder’s choice.

Francisco scored all the way from first on a ball that never left the infield, beating the throw by a decent margin with a slide into home. Those runs proved to be insurance with Cruz ready to finish things off on the mound, but Correa’s four-RBI day shouldn’t be overlooked.

“I came into the day, we came in with a plan,” Correa said. “It was to not give up. I just came up with that in my head. I knew he was going to throw me a fastball. I kept on battling. First at-bat, I got hit by a pitch. Second at-bat, I had a job to do, which was to put the squeeze down. I didn’t do the job, so I knew I had to make up for it. I just saw a breaking pitch, threw my hands at it went right down the line.”

Jose Correa (6) drove in all four runs for Columbus on a pair of hits against Key West.

Not getting beat by Ong’s fastball was something Weber had talked to his team about coming into the game. Anytime a high school arm is throwing 94 mph, hitters are bound to get frustrated at the plate. Being ready for it is half the battle, though. The Explorers were ready for Ong’s power pitch and forced him to make a mistake with his secondary stuff.

“Our approach was to get the fastball,” Weber said. “We also wanted to have a good two-strike approach, which I thought we did. We only struck out five or six times today. We put the ball in play with two strikes, which led to two more runs which gave us breathing room. So, our idea was just to hunt the fastball.”

In the end, Columbus’ plan worked, and Cruz had the kind of outing that opposing managers can do nothing but tip their cap to.

“All the credit goes to their pitcher,” Conchs manager Ralph Henriquez said. “Their pitcher did a great job. We didn’t really get on him. We had three hits scattered throughout the ballgame, and the guy just did a great job. Hats off to him. He did a fantastic job going seven innings and throwing a complete game.

“But, you know, this is what we come here for, a program like Columbus, to get us ready for the end of the season. That’s when you have to be ready to play. We don’t come up to the mainland much, but when we do it’s to play quality teams and gain some experience.”

Key West moves to 4-3 on the season with the loss and is hoping to stay above .500 after hosting a weekend series at the Southernmost Point of the Continental United States against the True North Titans (5-4).

For Columbus, a 6-1 start to the season means that the team is once again poised to be one of the strongest contenders in Class 7A. But only one team from the region gets to advance to the state final four and the two-time reigning Douglas Eagles loom large.

Those two programs will clash on March 24 and give a taste of what a potential regional rematch would be like. Weber says that his team is excited to be winning ballgames early, but it’s the ones at the end that will mean the most.

“Never too high, never too low,” he said. “It’s baseball. We’ll enjoy this one today, but tomorrow we’ve got to get back to work. Tomorrow, we’ve got a big team coming in from West Boca.”

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