NCT’s Gates carries mates past perennially tough Hornets behind brilliant 12-K, 1-hitter, 3-0

J.P. Gates and catcher Brandon Riera celebrate after besting Bishop Moore Wednesday night in Brooksville, 3-0. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO
J.P. Gates brought the intensity right to the final pitch against Bishop Moore. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO
Nature Coast senior Zach Funkhouser lines a single to get Nature Coast started against Bishop Moore. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO
Nature Coast senior catcher Brandon Riera delivers two first-inning RBI to help eliminate Bishop Moore, 3-0. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

BASEBALL

Riera aids with two-run

first-inning double, while

Frangione adds RBI single

By TONY CASTRO

HernandoSport.com

BROOKSVILLE – In Year 15 of Nature Coast Technical baseball, its 382nd career game Wednesday night against private school bully, Orlando-Bishop Moore Catholic, may be remembered for awhile.

For years, the Orange County-based Hornets have owned the volleyball, basketball courts, football fields, soccer surfaces and baseball diamonds against any Hernando County opposition.

Local teams – with the exception of wrestling – have basically been utilized as piñatas for practices.

Didn’t the Hornets walk in riding a 15-game winning streak?

Wasn’t this the same baseball program that has etched more regional/state wins (57) than Hernando County’s six combined teams (34)?

And wasn’t this the same BMC program that returned four starters from last year’s regional semifinal win in Orlando over NCT, 2-1?

You remember, the one that NCT southpaw Jonathan “J.P.” Gates was called out by Bishop Moore standout leadoff batter Kyle Mock.

In 2017, Mock finished 3-for-3 against Gates, including a bunt single. His teammates fanned 13 times, yet prevailed en route to the eventual FHSAA Class 5A State Finals, losing to Jacksonville-Bolles, 7-2.

The Hornets were attempting to reach the Final Four for a 12th visit.

This time, however, in the Sharks’ final home game, Gates elevated his game.

The 6-foot-1 hurler threw darts all game long.

Blending his fast ball and curve, Gates’ 44th career start concluded with his ninth complete game, a one-hit gem against Bishop Moore (25-4), 3-0.

The win enabled NCT (25-4) to finish 15-1 at home this spring, but most importantly pushed the Sharks into its first-ever regional final next Tuesday at Alachua-Santa Fe at 7 p.m.

Alachua-Santa Fe Raiders

The Santa Fe Raiders (16-13) advanced thanks to Tuesday night’s four-run rally in the bottom of the lucky seventh to edge Tavares, 5-4.

Gates rules

The two-time defending Hernando County Player of the Year Gates was backed by a defensive effort that converted 27-of-28 chances.

The assistance arrived early.

With one out, Gates issued a free pass to Dylan Brazil.

Shortstop Dale Thomas, however, wrapped into an around-the-horn 5-4-3 double play to end the first inning.

NCT immediately pounced on Bishop Moore junior right-hander Jack McRae (10-3).

Senior right fielder Zach Funkhouser lined a single to right.

It stretched Funkhouser’s hitting skein to five straight games – all in the post-season.

Gates, who came in hitting .422, rocketed a shot up the middle that slithered past second baseman Mock for an error.

On the play, Gates alertly took second base.

He was replaced by courtesy runner Jayden Crawford.

With runners at second and third and nobody out, senior catcher Brandon Riera jumped on the first pitch he saw, lining a two-run double to right-center.

Riera’s 10th two-bagger of the season plated his 25th and 26th runs batted in staking NCT to a 2-0 cushion.

Gates retired six batters in a row in the second and third frames, featuring four punchouts.

In the bottom of the third, the hosts tacked on another run.

With one out, Funkhouser coaxed a walk and quickly advanced to second base on a wild pitch.

Gates grounded a ball toward first sacker Sonny Rao, but the ball seemed to take a funny hop and Rao never touched it for a single to right. Again designated rabbit Crawford entered for Gates.

With runners at the corners, McRae plunked Riera in the back to load the sacks.

Brandon Frangione

Senior Brandon Frangione looped an RBI single to left plating Funkhouser.

Frangione’s 30th RBI of the season permitted the pesky Funkhouser to score his county-leading 47th run of the season, 3-0 Sharks.

With the bases loaded, McRae was replaced by McGwire Holbrook on the hill.

Holbrook enticed Brennan Cross into his second double play of the game – a 4-6-3 twinkilling – to defuse the rally.

Holbrook closed out the game for the Hornets facing 13 batters over 3.2 innings. He yielded two hits and no runs, issuing one walk (intentional) while recording four strikeouts to keep the visitors in the game.

In the fourth, BMC threatened.

With two outs, Thomas reached on an error by shortstop Chase Davis.

The subsequent 3-2 pitch to Fabien Escalante missed by an eyelash enabling Escalante to trot to first base.

But with two on, Holbrook struck out looking.

After that, Gates gained steam mowing down the next eight batters in a row.

With two outs in the seventh, Holbrook hooked a single down the right field line.

The safety spoiled Gates’ bid at his fourth career no-hitter.

After a mound visit by fourth-year NCT skipper Frank Vitale, Gates closed the books striking out Nick Spitulski for the third straight time.

In all, Gates hurled 81 pitches, walked a pair and fanned 12 Hornets.

Of the Hornet starters, Gates (8-1 overall) fanned 8-of-9.

Of NCT’s game-high six hits, Frangione was only batter to collect multiple hits (2), finishing 2-for-3.

Post-game analysis

Zach Funkhouser          Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

The two-time All-County selection Funkhouser revealed the Sharks’ fast start set the game’s tempo, “For most of the season, we’ve scored early. It was real important tonight to get momentum.

“… We also knew the kid we were facing tonight wasn’t as good as Bates was last year for them or how good Gunnar Hoglund was this year for Fivay. We had a good game plan going in.”

On Gates’ efforts, “What he does game in and game out, we come to expect that. I mean a 1-hit shutout against a state runner-up in our last home game is pretty impressive,” described Funkhouser, 18. “To me, the is the biggest win in school history. Nothing compares to this.”

Unlike Funkhouser, Riera hadn’t gotten a hit three of his five post-season playoff games.

Brandon Riera

“I’ve been in a slump,” admitted the 18-year-old Riera. “Tonight, I came in just trying to keep my hands together. Scoring two early runs is exactly what we needed. For me, I was focused on trying to go away (with a pitch).”

Admiring Gates’ work as his battery mate, “He pitched incredible tonight. They had no chance, no shot, the way he was dealing,” expressed Riera. “J.P. has been consistent all season. He had a little more tonight. He definitely went beyond his normal game.”

On where the Sharks go from here, “We’re gonna make it (to states),” insisted Riera. “I love breaking records every game.”

Gates explained his team’s mindset, “We wanted to come out and beat them,” said the 18-year-old hurler. “We’ve scored runs all year in the first inning. We got some guys on and scored. That really helped set the tone.”

On who Gates’ believed was his toughest out, he never hesitated.

Jonathan Gates

“Their leadoff guy Mock is their best hitter. He went 3-for-3 against me last year,” recalled Gates. “Difference was we all wanted to win and we all wanted to go out with a bang.”

On what has to happen Tuesday for the Sharks to reach Fort Myers, “We’ve gotta come to play and display the same intensity we had tonight,” replied Gates.

“I thought Brandon’s (Riera) hit was huge in the first inning. We needed early runs and he really came through.”

With the win, Coach Vitale will enjoy his first-ever regional final in 13 seasons.

Frank Vitale

The veteran skipper believed Gates had plenty of motivation.

“I saw an interview in the Orlando Sentinel from last year where Mock said Gates’ fastball was flat. Well, it wasn’t flat tonight,” emphasized Vitale. “J.P. was never in trouble. This  is what he’s been doing all season long.

“J.P. is a kid I’m gonna miss big time. What he does never surprises me. He’s had many wow moments and he’s not done. I just knew he’d come out and compete tonight.”

On Funkhouser’s clutch table setting, “Funk is hot. He’s hitting the ball and getting on. That sets the table for everybody else,” noted Vitale. “We had stressed to the guys that we needed to score early and we did.

“I thought Riera had been pressing (in the playoffs) and then the ball he hit in the first inning almost went out. All season long, different guys have stepped up,” admitted Vitale. 

05-08 Class 5A, Region II Quarterfinals:

@ Brooksville

Nature Coast Technical 7, Taylor Middle/High School 0

@ Orlando

Bishop Moore 10, Hernando 0

05-16 Class 5A, Region II Semifinals:

@ Brooksville

NCT 3, Bishop Moore 0.

05-22 Class 5A, Region II Finals:

@ Alachua

NCT vs. Alachua-Santa Fe, 7 p.m.

Nature Coast Technical 3,

Orlando-Bishop Moore Catholic 0

 

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BM – McRae, Spitulski (3) and W. Eberly.

NCT– Gates and Riera.

W – Gates (8-1). L – McRae (10-3).

2B – NCT: Riera, Frangione.

Records – Orlando-Bishop Moore Catholic (25-4 overall), Nature Coast Technical (25-4 overall).

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