SULPHUR — St. Charles Catholic put on a small-ball clinic Sunday evening at McMurry Park, as three of its five runs were byproducts of bunts in a 5-2 win against St. Thomas More in the Division II semifinals.
The victory sends the sixth-seeded Comets (30-8) to the state finals for the eighth time overall and the first time since 2016. SCC, which will play top-seeded University Lab at noon Tuesday on Field 41, has never won a state championship.
The second-seeded Cougars finished the season 31-9.
“A lot of people ask about (the amount of runner-up finishes),” said SCC coach Wayne Stein. “I don’t think we get caught up in it. Would I trade not ever getting there? No. There’s a lot of schools that has never been in one. So just to have the opportunity to play in them and to play on the last day of the season with your guys and have a chance to win it, I wouldn’t trade it for nothing no matter what the outcome is on Tuesday.”
Though the bunting precision was critical, the Comets wouldn’t be in this position without starting pitcher Kaile Levatino. A hard-luck loser in a 1-0 defeat to Teurlings Catholic in Game 1 of the quarterfinal series, Levatino fired a complete game Sunday.
“He moved the ball in and out well, kept it down low,” said STM coach Gary Perkins. “We squared some balls up, but we hit it right at them. I thought we hit the ball probably harder than they did. But bottom line is, we couldn’t get a timely hit. So therefore, as a result, we didn’t score enough runs, and they found a way.”
The junior right-hander limited the Cougars to two runs on six hits on 104 pitches. He often pitched around traffic, stranding men at second and third in the fifth and leaving the bases loaded in the sixth. He leaned on his fastballs as the game progressed.
“I actually throw harder out the stretch and have more control out the stretch,” Levatino said. “That’s what I like to do. I like when the pressure is on. That’s my favorite thing to do.”
The small ball, however, helped Levatino’s cause.
In the second, after the Comets put men on first and second via singles from Eli Ory and Joe Chiarella, Caleb St. Martin laid down a bunt. Cougars pitcher Drew McDaniel fielded the ball, but his throw to third base for the force out was errant, allowing courtesy runner Nick Lemoine to score. Chiarella then scored two batters later on a wild pitch.
“That’s really not something we’ve done a lot this year,” Stein said of the bunting. “We’ve been a team that’s been able to swing (the bats). But when you’re facing a guy like Drew McDaniel, who’s got phenomenal stuff, you’re not going to get 6-7 hits off of him.”
The Cougars tied the game in the bottom half of the inning, and the contest remained knotted over the next three innings as McDaniel and Levatino dueled. McDaniel, an Ole Miss signee, struck out nine before being lifted for John Moody one out in the sixth.
By then, however, the Comets had seized control of the contest.
Chiarella drilled a one-out double over the center fielder’s head, and Nick Lorio scored from second base. Chiarella advanced to third base on a throwing error on the play.
Stein then called for a squeeze bunt with with St. Martin at the plate, and St. Martin popped the bunt over the heads of a drawn-in infield to score Chiarella.
“It was a squeeze situation, and I knew I had to get the ball down,” St. Martin said. “But the pitch was high and outside, and it bounced over the first baseman’s head. I’m glad nobody caught it.”
Then Jason Bosco laid down a bunt single to move Lemoine, courtesy running for St. Martin, to third base. T.J. Lasseigne executed a safety squeeze bunt on the next at-bat to score Lemoine.
“It wasn’t so much the bunting,” Perkins said. “The scouting report on them was once they got a guy on base, they were going to bunt, and that’s exactly what they did. It’s just if you bunt the ball and it goes over the first baseman’s head, there ain’t a whole lot you can explain on that. It’s just baseball.