During introductions for the Southern Section Division III title game between Westlake and West Covina South Hills highs, a group of Westlake fans held a banner in support of pitcher Ethan East.
"We came from North and South to see East," the banner read.
Presumably the sign's creators didn't plan on seeing East ejected with the Warriors leading by a run in the sixth inning, beginning a downward spiral that resulted in a 9-3 South Hills victory.
"Horrible," said center fielder Joey Cuppari of Westlake. "We had this game won."
East, the team's closer, entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning with one out, the bases loaded and Westlake leading, 3-2.
The 6-foot-3 senior took a called third strike and was ejected after cursing plate umpire Sidney Williamson, being warned for his language and cursing Williamson again.
Cuppari flied out to end the inning and Westlake Coach Chuck Berrington, his pitching options now limited, sent starter Jeff Boyle (7-4) back to the mound, hoping the senior right-hander could record the final three outs.
Instead, an error by shortstop Scott Dragicevich allowed leadoff hitter Robbie Chavez to reach first.
Pinch-runner Landon Evans stole second and came home on singles by Ryan Smith and Isaac Jurado. Jurado's hit came off reliever Mike Alba, who allowed five hits and five runs in the inning.
Cuppari, who had a single, double and a triple and who scored Westlake's first two runs, shook his head when asked about East, who declined comment.
"We know Ethan was upset but I thought we needed him to throw at the end and then he gets ejected," Cuppari said.
South Hills Coach Jim Bastion agreed that the incident was a turning point.
"When it happened I turned to my assistant and said 'There goes their No. 1 relief pitcher out of the game,' " Bastion said. "It gave us a boost."
Berrington said he had not decided whether to pitch East in the seventh but admitted his ejection hurt the team.
"The umpire warned him but he kept going," Berrington said. "We all do things as kids and then think how stupid it was."
Westlake's meltdown ruined a gutsy effort by Boyle, who allowed four hits and four runs, two earned, in six plus innings. He struck out two, walked two and seemed on the verge of overcoming three errors committed behind him.
"If we had been able to play behind him, Jeff would have taken us to the end," said Dragicevich, who made one error in the regular season and four in the postseason.
Unseeded Westlake (19-11) took a 1-0 lead in the first when Cuppari tripled and scored on Kevin Howard's groundout. In the second, third-seeded South Hills (25-4) parlayed two errors, two walks, a wild pitch and a passed ball into a 2-1 lead.
Westlake got even in the third when Cuppari doubled, advanced to third on a ground out by Brian Bladen and scored on Howard's sacrifice fly.
The Warriors took a 3-2 lead in the sixth when Ryan Cope scored on Doug Hutton's bases-loaded walk.
Bo Wilfong (7-2) pitched a six-hitter for South Hills, striking out six and walking three.