Derek Arroyo's two-run triple in the sixth inning helped the Panthers rally past the host Lake Mary Rams for a 6-3 win in the FHSAA Class 9A, Region 1 Final — sending Dr. Phillips to the Final Four for the first time since 1996.
LAKE MARY Dr. Phillips baseball coach Mike Bradley has taken to calling his team "Cinderella boys" throughout these regional playoffs, dating back to the district tournament.
The name fits, too.
Over the past few weeks, the Panthers have — on different occasions — been down to the final out of their season, survived an extra-inning thriller that lasted more than four hours, and navigated the uncertainty of having a playoff game rescheduled three times.
And, in the latest chapter of the team's remarkable run, Dr. Phillips rallied from a 3-2 deficit to Lake Mary through five innings to top the host Rams 6-3 in the FHSAA Class 9A, Region 1 Championship Tuesday night.
The win advances the Panthers to the Final Four for the first time since 1996, when the program won its state championship.
Afterward, Bradley — who was a sophomore at Dr. Phillips when the Panthers last advanced this far in the playoffs — could hardly contain the pride he felt in his team.
"We're finally taking that next step forward, as a program — I'm almost at a loss for words," Bradley said. "We're just trying to play one pitch at a time. Our guys are buying into that. ... We're going to keep riding the wave."
While Bradley was a sophomore and playing for the Panthers in 1996, sophomore Derek Arroyo was years away from being born.
And it was Arroyo, someone who had spent most of the season playing for Dr. Phillips' junior varsity team, who squared up the biggest hit of his young career — a two-run triple in the top of the sixth inning that put the Panthers back ahead of the Rams (23-5).
"I was looking for a fastball — he threw me a curveball and I stayed back and I hit the ball," Arroyo said. "It felt amazing."
Arroyo's big hit put the Panthers ahead 4-3, and later in the inning, Raymond Negron drove him in to extend the lead to 5-3.
An insurance run in the top of the seventh inning was icing on the cake for Dr. Phillips, which turned to closer Logan Bryan to close the door on Lake Mary — something he did to the tune of five strikeouts in two innings.
Bryan relieved starting pitcher Cort Roedig, who allowed just three hits in five innings of work. Roedig had just one true blemish during his outing on the mound — a two-run home run by Lake Mary's Albert Duran in the second inning — and was otherwise stellar.
"In my head, I flush it — (Duran) hit a home run off me, but right after I just came back in and just did my work," Roedig said. "I have faith in my team and especially in Logan (Bryan). He's a great pitcher and our guy to close it out for us."
The Panthers (18-13) had struck first in the regional final, pushing across two runs in the top of the first inning. Senior Hamzah Nobles led off the game with a double to the gap, later scoring on a wild pitch.
Later in the inning, Will Sullivan homered for the second time in as many games, blasting a ball over the right field wall.
The 2-0 lead did not last long, however, as the Rams struck back with all three of their runs in the bottom of the second inning.
A pitchers' duel ensued between Roedig and his counterpart, Lake Mary's Tony Rossi, over the next three innings — a stretch that ended with one big swing of the bat from Arroyo.
Now, the Panthers will prepare to head down to Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers for a FHSAA Class 9A State Semifinal game at 4 p.m. June 1. There, at the Spring Training home of the Minnesota Twins, Dr. Phillips will face the winner of the regional championship between Timber Creek and Vero Beach, which will take place May 23.
It might seem an unlikely place for a team that was the No. 5 seed in its district tournament to find itself — but not to the Panthers.
"To be honest, it's not surprising — we really thought this was going to happen from the first day of practice," senior August Haymaker said. "It was a rough season, but we grinded through it, and when it came time for the playoffs we're playing our best baseball."
Indeed, Dr. Phillips had started the 2018 season with five consecutive wins before enduring a stretch where it lost 10 of its next 14 games — with half of those losses coming in one-run ballgames.
All of that seems a distant memory, and perhaps a necessary evil, for a team that is one of four teams left standing in the state of Florida in Class 9A.
"We stopped with the expectations and we just started playing baseball," Bradley said. "All of a sudden, confidence started to grow and we're winning these immaculate games."