Unlucky La Verne Falls 9-7 to Santa Margarita and Walk-Off Homer, Regroups to Face Eastlake on Saturday

July 28, 2017
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In the bottom of the fourth inning, La Verne skipper Mark Smith comes to get Matt Bustos, who had reached his pitch limit. Bustos left the game with two outs and a 4-3 lead.

LONG BEACH, California, July 27, 2017 — Inexplicably, sometimes people just have bad days. Coaches have them, players have them, parents have them, even reporters have them (inexcusably, I missed the entire first inning because of traffic and because I lingered a little too long earlier in the day, picking out a bougainvillea  at Lincoln Nursery in Pasadena and then stopping a little too long to enjoy a shawarma sandwich at Zankou Chicken on Colorado Blvd.– Being a veteran of L.A.’s horrendous traffic, especially on a getaway Thursday night, I should have known it would take me more than 90 minutes to reach the ballpark.

My timing was just a little off, and it cost me.

When I finally arrived at Stearns Champions Park in Long Beach, La Verne was losing by a run, 1-0. I blinked, but the score wouldn’t go away. Playing from behind wasn’t something La Verne was used to. A parent informed me that somebody for Santa Margarita had hit a triple and come home on a wild pitch or was it a passed ball.

I felt uneasy. I was worried. I was unsettled.

I shouldn’t have been because La Verne, as it has all post-season, came back with a two-out rally in the top of the second. Travis Owen started the rally with a walk and Clayton Roland promptly knocked him home with a lightning bolt two-run homer, putting La Verne up, 2-1.

La Verne pushed that advantage to 4-1 in the top of the third on a blistering double by Matt Bustos, driving in tablesetters Justin Santiago who had walked to start the inning, and Morgan Smith, who had singled.

Santa Margarita grabbed a run back in the bottom of the third. Bustos was dealing for La Verne. He might not have been as sharp as in previous games (like the superhuman 19-strikeout performance in Ontario), but he was still the team bulldog, getting key strikeouts when needed to preserve La Verne’s 4-2 lead, with both his pitching and his batting.

In the top of the fourth, after a leadoff double by Owen, La Verne went quietly. In the bottom half of the inning, Bustos continued to battle. Facing a tight strike zone and a mounting pitch count, he surrendered a pair of singles and a walk to give up a run, but he also wove in a pair of  strikeouts, including fanning the last hitter he would face before exiting the game, leading 4-3.

With two outs, Tristin Rambaud relieved with two runners aboard. After getting two strikes on Mason Kellerman, Kellerman connected on a curve that rattled off the centerfield fence for a 2 RBI extra base hit. That was the extent of the damage, but suddenly La Verne trailed 5-4 with just two innings to play.

For the La Verne faithful, there was only question: Could their kids come back yet again?

In the top of the fifth, it certainly appeared that they would. Leading off the inning, Morgan Smith and Bustos cracked sharp singles and advanced to second and third. But what started out so promising — runners in scoring position with no outs — uncharacteristically unraveled. Smith was cut down at the plate on a fielder’s choice. Seth Wrightstone fouled out and Nolan Smith was nipped at first on an infield play that Santa Margarita’s pitcher momentarily bobbled before he got the umpire’s favorable call at first.

The fateful fifth had not been kind to La Verne, reminding us all there is no crying or instant replay in Little League baseball.

Still, despite the setback, La Verne gamely held Santa Margarita down in the bottom of the fifth to still trail by only a run, 5-4. Down twice in the game, did they have one more comeback in them?

Travis Owen served as a late-game reliever for La Verne.

Leading off, Owen lofted a deep fly ball to right. For a moment, it looked as if the shot might leave the ballpark, but it the ball found the fielder’s glove, leaving La Verne with only two precious outs. Up stepped Roland, who scorched a grounder that scudded under the shortstop’s glove and bounced into centerfield. Roland was standing at first, and the seeds of a rally were growing, with thundering approval from La Verne fans who had shoehorned themselves into the metal stands.

Next Mikah Smith, hitting out of the nine-hole, drilled an opposite field single on a 3-2 pitch to left, bringing up the top of the lineup and Justin Santiago. On the first pitch Santiago saw, he swung so hard he almost came out of his shoes. Manager Mark Smith called time and counseled his all-star to stay within himself. Whatever Smith said worked because Santiago laced a two-run double to give La Verne an improbable 6-5 lead. Then Bustos singled home Santiago to give La Verne a 7-5 cushion.

La Verne had come back on three different occasions, the mark of a true champion. The team had overcome a tight strike zone, questionable calls, and a sometimes shaky defense to take the lead in the last inning of the game. When things looked their darkest — on a night when they weren’t their sharpest — they still found a way to get the lead.

But still something wasn’t quite right. Give a team like Santa Margarita too many chances, and well, they’ll find a way to come up with some magic of their own. Opening the door for Santa Margarita was a La Verne error followed by a close call at first that didn’t go La Verne’s way —  two potential outs that now represented the tying runs on the basepaths.

There was a sense La Verne was about to experience its version of a bad day — when nothing in the world seems to go quite right despite your most heroic efforts.

In the blink of an eye, Santa Margarita cashed in one run on a single and then Kellerman put the ball out of the yard where no one could retrieve it — a walk-off three run home run that scoreboard recorded as a 9-7 win. La Verne wouldn’t be given another chance to come back one more time.

While the game result was was final, La Verne’s amazing post-season journey simply took a new turn. They just experienced their version of the bad day — a hard lesson and teachable moment — that everyone who is human has to confront from time to time. There’s no accounting for it. You just pack your bag to come back another day to see how much resolve and resiliency you have.

“We battled all year,” La Verne manager Mark Smith said shortly after the game. “I have confidence in our guys, it just didn’t go right for us in the end. I’m so proud of the way our guys battled back in the sixth. They’re a bunch of gamers. They show up when they needed.

“For us to be in this position [still alive in the tournament] is a testament to the kids we have on this team.

Their bad day behind — when they did so many things right but weren’t ultimately rewarded — they return to the diamond this Saturday at 4 p.m. to play Eastlake, unlucky 9-8 losers themselves in extra innings to Santa Margarita.

Game coverage sponsored by longtime La Verne Realtor Colleen Bennett, Sotheby’s International, 909.374.4744.

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