The Laguna Beach High baseball team prides itself on finishing strong. It's what the Breakers needed Tuesday night in a key Orange Coast League showdown.
The Breakers did come up with such an effort against Calvary Chapel at Windrow Park in Irvine. They overcame a pair of two-run deficits and by finishing fast late, pulled out a 5-3 victory at Ryan Lemmon Stadium.
The win was critical on a few fronts, mainly, that it kept Laguna alone atop the league standings. They now have a two-game edge on Calvary Chapel with five league contests remaining. A Calvary win Tuesday would have put the Eagles (13-8, 8-2 in league) into a first-place tie with the Breakers.
In winning its 10th league contests in as many starts, the Breakers, ranked No. 4 in CIF Southern Section Division 4, added to their school-record win streak which is now at 16 games. They set the new mark for consecutive wins when they beat Saddleback last week.
The Breakers (20-2) needed all they could muster Tuesday to keep their streak alive. They met the challenge of a Calvary team that took a 2-0 lead in the second inning and led, 3-1, through the third. But, as Coach Mike Bair said, his team looks for a big finish.
The Breakers thrived on that Tuesday by scoring the final four runs of the game and shutting out the Eagles over the final four innings.
"Finishing strong is something we've been able to do this year," Bair said. "We were in for a fight against Calvary, but our guys played well down the stretch. It was a great game."
Bair also needed only two words to sum up the crucial factor in the game.
"Grant Wilhelm," he declared.
Wilhelm, who started in center field and made an outstanding catch on the warning track while on the run in the opening inning, took over pitcher duties for starter Kurt Rebone with two out in the bottom of the third and the Breakers trailing, 3-1.
"I told Grant for the last few games, he might not be our 1-2 punch right now but he has to be ready from center field any time we might need him. Sure enough, we needed him early in this game.
"To top it off, he gets the game-winning RBI. He was the big difference in the game."
Wilhelm (3-2) was impressive on the hill, in the field, and at the plate.
Wilhelm gave Laguna its first lead and put the Breakers in front for good in the top of the sixth when he ripped a 2-2 pitch for a single off Calvary Chapel relief pitcher John Erhardt. The ball took a one-bounce hop off the infield dirt and went over the glove of diving third baseman Wyatt Haccou, who Erhardt had relieved on the mound, and into left field. Wilhelm's single scored Preston GrandPre, who had started the two-out rally with an infield single to short stop.
GrandPre took two bases on an errant pick-off throw to first base prior to Wilhelm's hit, positioning Laguna with the go-ahead run.
Laguna padded its lead to 5-3 in the top of the seventh when Steven Harrison was hit by a pitch to start the inning and scored with two out on a wild pitch.
"This was the biggest game of the season, so far," Bair said. "A 19-2 record is a good start, but it's just that, a start. If we dropped this game, we would have been tied for first [place]. We went after this game as though it was Game 7 of the World Series. It was a big one."
Calvary Chapel was the team that got off to a hot start. The Eagles picked up five hits off Rebone in the first 2 2/3 innings in taking a 2-0 lead. Laguna got a run back in the top of the third when GrandPre roped a one-out triple up the gap in right-center field. With two outs, he scored when Robbie McInerny sent a grounder to the left side of the infield.
McInerny's hit went deep in the hole at shortstop. The Eagles' Derek Villalobos gathered the ball, but his throw to first was high. McInerny was safe on the play which allowed GrandPre to score.
Calvary Chapel got the run back in the bottom of the third on clean-up hitter Christian Sheehan's RBI single. Rebone exited the game and Wilhelm took over with runners at first and third with two out. Wilhelm then struck out Patrick Cromwell to get out of the inning.
It was the first of six strikeouts recorded by Wilhelm who sent the Eagles down in order in the fifth and sixth innings. He gave up two hits and a walk and was replaced by senior Cole Millerd with two out and two on in the bottom of the seventh.
Laguna closed to 3-2 in the top of the fourth when they loaded the bases and Harrison scored on Will McInerny's ground out to third. The Breakers then forced Haccou from the mound after they tied the score in the fifth. Robbie McInerny and Blake Hester both singled and Harrison drew a walk to load the bases. Richie Nunis then took the first pitch offered for a single to center field which brought in McInerny with the tying run.
Nunis also made a big defensive stop to end the game. The Eagles put runners on first and second with two out in the bottom of the seventh. Millerd came in to face Erhardt and got the senior, the Eagles' No. 3 hitter, to hit a fly ball that traveled just inside the foul line in shallow right field. Nunis charged hard to made the catch which clinched the comeback.
"I'm pretty sure that Richie is the only player who makes that catch for us," Bair said. "He's pretty fast and plays great in right field."
Laguna has the opportunity to further distance itself from the rest of the Orange Coast League pack Friday. The Breakers play host to Calvary Chapel at 3:15 p.m. in the third and final game of their three-game league series. A win by the Breakers would give them a three-game edge on their closest league rival with four games left to play.
Bair plans to send senior right-hander Jackson Rees (7-0) to the hill for Friday's contest.
"It's another big one for us," Bair said. "We have five league games left and a lot to play for. I feel as though we have some momentum heading into these final weeks. We play well at home and we are undefeated on Fridays. As we've been preaching all year, it's all about finishing strong."
CIF Weekly Rankings (week of April 22)
Baseball: Laguna Beach (No. 4, Division 4).