TORRANCE — It had been 57 years since a Laguna Beach High baseball team had made it to the semifinal round of the CIF Southern Section playoffs, that is, until the 2014 Breakers became the first school team in the modern era to accomplish that feat.
Tuesday at Kendall Field at Torrance Park in the city of Torrance, Laguna was six outs away from going to where no previous Laguna team had gone before: to a Southern Section championship game. But, It wasn't to be.
The seventh-ranked Breakers took a 3-0 lead into the bottom of the sixth where host Torrance came up with a three-run rally to tie the score and in extra innings, the fourth-ranked Tartars pushed across the winning run with two out in the bottom of the ninth, to pull out a 4-3 victory in a Division 4 semifinal.
The win sends Torrance (27-8) on to the division's title game where it will face longtime rival and sixth-ranked South Torrance which on Tuesday rallied for five runs in the top of the seventh and went on to post a 5-1 semifinal win at eighth-ranked Whittier California. The Pioneer League rivals will travel from the South Bay to Riverside Saturday night for a 4 p.m. title match at UC Riverside.
For Laguna, Tuesday's loss put an end to an outstanding season. The Breakers captured the Orange Coast League title, won 27 games, resided among the best teams in Division 4 throughout the year, were at or near the top in several individual and team statistical categories, and finished the season 27-3.
Their three losses were by a combined four runs.
Both Laguna and Torrance entered Tuesday's showdown riding 15-game winning streaks.
"I'm deeply proud of each and every player on this team," Laguna Coach Mike Bair said. "I know they did everything possible to win this game."
The Breakers did. They scored the games' first run in the top of the third inning, and put up two more in the fifth. They had held Torrance at bay and got out of scoring threats in the first three innings by the Tartars who finally broke through in the sixth.
It took a hit batter, a walk and slow dinker in the infield, for Torrance to score the tying runs.
Laguna had loaded the bases on Torrance reliever, freshman Travis Martizia, with two out in the top of the sixth but couldn't extend its lead. In the bottom half of the inning, the Tartars got their first hit off Laguna starter Preston GrandPre since the third inning when Manny Olloque hit a leadoff single to left field. A walk and mishandled bunt back to the mound loaded the bases, then, with one out, the Tartars' Michael Strosnider, in his first at-bat of the game, was hit by pitch to force home a run.
A walk issued to Jacob Gurwell, Torrance's starting pitcher who left the mound two batters into the fifth inning and was moved to left field, brought in the Tartars' second run. It was then that David Aros hit a slow, methodical ground ball that went high and over the mound that stayed in the infield. The Breakers couldn't make a play on the grounder, and the Tartars pushed home the tying run.
Torrance still had the bases loaded when GrandPre was relieved by another Laguna ace, senior Grant Wilhelm.
"Preston did a great job out there, but I felt our best team defensively is when Preston's at shortstop, and Grant is on the mound," Bair said.
On Wilhelm's first pitch of the game, he got Robert Sylvester to hit a grounder to shortstop where GrandPre started an inning-ending double play.
Both teams had their key aces on the mound with the game on the line. Torrance turned to senior left-hander Kyle Smith who took over for Martizia to start the seventh. Wilhelm struck out four of the first eight batters he faced including striking out the side in the bottom of the sixth, while Smith ended up striking out six of the 12 batters he went up against.
Smith also had the hit that determined the outcome.
The Torrance half of the ninth started innocently enough for the Breakers when Aros grounded out to GrandPre at shortstop. Then, the Tartans got consecutive hits from Sylvester and Tyler Martizia, and a walk drawn by Olloque, to load the bases. Wilhelm got his fifth strikeout when he sent down Tartars' designated and clean-up hitter Ryan Eastburn for the second out, bringing Smith to bat.
The lefty drove a 2-2 pitch through the right side of the infield, knocking home Sylvester from third with the winning run.
Wilhelm took the loss, his only setback in an incredible season that saw the senior win a school-record 13 games.
Laguna had taken a 1-0 lead in the top of the third with a two-out rally when No. 9 hitter Jake Smith doubled to the fence in left-center field. GrandPre then ripped a 2-2 pitch that went high off the fence in left field for an RBI double.
The lower half of the Laguna line up again produced in the fifth. Freshman Dante Faicchio and Smith both worked Gurwell to a full count and both drew walks. GrandPre delivered again, sending an 0-1 pitch down the right field line for a double that scored Faicchio. Junior Callan Cochran followed with a grounder to third that got past Olloque and Smith scored for a 3-0 lead.
The Breakers appeared in control of the game until the bottom of the sixth.
"It was do or die for both teams today, and nobody was going to go down without a fight," Bair said. "They drew a couple of walks and got a key hit [in the sixth], and that's the game of baseball."
Laguna had reached the semifinals by scoring a huge win May 30 at La Habra Sonora. The Breakers led the entire way in the quarterfinal game and took a 5-3 win from the second-seeded Raiders. Richie Nunis hit a two-run triple and finished with two hits which gave the senior a school single-season record 51 hits. Faicchio had three hits and an RBI, Smith had two hits and drove in two runs, and Cochran and senior Garrett Burk each had two hits.
Wilhelm threw a five-hitter and went the distance for his 13th win. He gave up an earned run for the first time in 40 innings.
Laguna began postseason play with shutout wins against Nordhoff (8-0) and 10th-ranked Alhambra (2-0).