Ridaught: A home run race

Almost 25 years ago there was an epic home run race between Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs.

In 1998, McGwire and Sosa engaged in a season-long quest to take down Roger Maris’ single-season home run record of 61.

They both set the record, which would later be broken, as McGwire topped Sosa, 70-66. With steroids running rampant at the time, the home run battle was good for baseball.

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While not as monumental, there is a home run race locally that is record worthy.

Santa Fe College’s Tyler Shelnut and Gaby Esquivel are closing in on a school record.

Heading into today’s series finale at Daytona State College, Shelnut has 19 home runs. He is currently tied with Santa Fe Athletics Hall of Famer Matt Armstrong, who had 19 in 2001 (31 in his career).

Esquivel has 17 home runs.

“Shelnut and Esquivel are doing historic things,” said SF coach Johnny Wiggs. “Those two guys, we’ve put a saddle on them and rode them a little bit and they’ve come up big for us in a lot of spots.”

The duo have combined for 114 hits, 22 doubles, six triples, 36 HRs and 109 runs batted in this season.

Shelnut, who committed to the Gators in December, just missed a home run on Wednesday in a 10-2 win against Daytona, hitting one off the bottom of the left field wall for his 11th double of the season.

Esquivel also just missed a dinger, hitting a triple to the gap in deep right center field.

Santa Fe College baseball Gaby Esquivel (19) and Tyler Shelnut (6) warming up

“The wind held that one up, the ball wasn’t carrying that way,” Wiggs said. “It’s definitely been a competitive thing for both of them and both of them are right there to set the school record. I’m a pitching guy but It’s been fun to watch those guys hit home runs.”

This is the most home runs by a player in one season under Wiggs, who won his 500th game at Santa Fe College last month. Ryan Matthews hit 15 home runs on the 2009 national runner-up team

“I think the team in the dugout spurs that even more, when one hits one they yell the other guy’s name because they know they’re getting closer or taking the lead.”

Not only are the pair chasing the home run record, but the Saints (26-21 overall and 14-12 in the Mid-Florida Conference) are trying to keep their postseason hopes alive.

SF needs to finish second in the conference to make the FCSAA state tournament, but they are two games back with just four games to play.

“I’m playing to win, the home run race is fun, a little friendly competition between me and Gaby,” said Shelnut, who was the 2018 FHSAA Class 5A State Player of the Year at Fort White High School. “It makes both of us better, but at the end of the day I think our main goal is to win games. We’re still in this thing, we still have a chance.”

Shelnut bats second in the lineup, while Esquivel hits third.

“He hits right before me so if I see him hit a home run I’m like, ‘Damn, I’ve got to catch up to him,” Esquivel said. “It’s just a friendly competition, but you’ve got to keep on going.”

Esquivel said his approach has made a difference, going from just two home runs in 2021 to 17 this season.

“Last year my approach was completely different and this year I kind of figured it out,” said the North Broward Prep School alum. “I’m just trying to stay focused and keep that approach for the rest of the year.”

Shelnut, who had a home run streak of five straight games with a long ball come to an end on Wednesday, concurred.

“I’d say the same thing for me,” said Shelnut, who hit seven home runs last season. “My approach has changed a little bit and it started working so I stuck with it and just not try to do too much, hit something hard, put something in play and hit good pitches. He and I both have done a good job of that and that’s why we’re at where we’re at.”

The Saints will conclude the regular season with a 3-game series against Lake-Sumter State College. 

SF will host on Saturday, April 23, and Wednesday, April 27. They will travel to LSSC on Monday, April 25.

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