LAGUNA BEACH — Mike Bair asked his Laguna Beach High baseball team to reach down deep in the final inning of Friday’s CIF Southern Section Division 4 playoff opener.
“It was about having faith, reaching down and finding it in your heart, and keeping that faith in your mind,” he said, explaining what he told his Breakers during a team huddle outside the Laguna dugout, as the Breakers prepared to take their final at-bat against Victorville Victor Valley.
The Breakers, it turns out, thrive on these last at-bats against the Jackrabbits.
A year ago, the teams met in the playoffs and Laguna, in its final at-bat, used a walk-off home run to pull out a 5-4 victory. It seemed unlikely that it would happen again, by that same score. No, not with Laguna down to its final two outs and trailing, 4-0.
But, it was deja vu all over again.
This time, Laguna scored five runs with one out in the bottom of the seventh, the final, decisive one coming in on a towering single by Richie Nunis up the alley in right-center field. The junior’s walk-off hit gave the Breakers an improbable, 5-4 win and kept their season alive.
Laguna, the No. 3-seed in the tournament, was able to extend its school-record win streak to 22 games. The Breakers, now 26-2, advance to the second round Tuesday.
“Wow,” is what Bair said after he addressed his team, moments after the Breakers had completed their wild comeback. “We have been preaching all year, to finish, and finish strong. You can’t finish much better than that.”
Laguna failed to score until its final at-bat, something that hadn’t happened all season to the Breakers. They had six hits heading into the seventh and to that point, had been out-hit, 8-6, by Victor Valley. The Breakers couldn’t get to Jackrabbits starter Danny Perez who lasted four batters into the seventh before he was relieved.
“That pitcher [Perez] sure was hitting his spots,” Bair said. “He kept us off-balance pretty much the entire game. We didn’t make any adjustments there at the end, though. We just continued to make the most of our at-bats.
Perez got Jackson Rees to strike out on a full count to start the bottom of the seventh. Laguna had a glimmer of hope when Larry Stewart followed Rees and sent a slow grounder toward third base. The Jackrabbits’ Kaleyl Anderson had no chance on the play, and Stewart was safe at first.
Adam Rodner followed Stewart and was hit by a pitch. That brought Preston GrandPre to the plate and he ripped a 2-0 pitch over the third-base bag and into right field. Stewart hustled home from second to give Laguna its first run.
Perez was replaced at that point by Jacob Padilla whose first pitch was taken by Grant Wilhelm for a fly ball to right field where the Jackrabbits’ Michael Nolan positioned himself for the catch. Nolan, however, bobbled and dropped the ball. Rodner scored on the play, GrandPre took third and Wilhelm raced to second. Suddenly, it was a 4-2 game.
The surge of momentum, from the Laguna dugout to the Laguna faithful, was palpable.
Three pitches after the fielding error, Robbie McInerny was hit by a pitch which loaded the bases. On the next pitch, Blake Hester lined a single to right field to score GrandPre and make it a one-run game. Steven Harrison, the hero of last year’s playoff win against Victor Valley with his walk-off home run in the bottom of the seventh, gave Laguna the tying run when he drew a bases-loaded walk on four pitches.
Padilla was pulled in favor of Sean Del La Torre who faced only one batter. It was Nunis who took a 1-1 pitch for his game-winning single.
“It was an outside fastball and it felt good when I connected on it,” Nunis said. “I watched the ball as I headed for first, knowing that we could tag-up and score. When the ball landed, I know we had won.
“We kept the faith. We just hung in there, and we believed.”
It was Victor Valley which played tough and believed it could win the opener. The Jackrabbits, who finished second in the Desert Sky League, were just 14-16 entering the first-round game. They attacked the ball offensively from the get-go, and got to Rees who was 10-0 and drew Friday’s starting assignment for Laguna.
The Jackrabbits had six hits through the first four innings and held a 4-0 lead.
Back-to-back home runs in the top of the fourth by a pair of sophomores, Robert Garcia and Andy Pascual, gave the Jackrabbits their 4-0 lead.
“They pitched well, they hit well, and that’s a class-act team,” Bair said. “They really attacked the ball and stayed ahead of us for 6 1/3 innings.”
Rees pitched the first four innings. The senior gave up six hits, walked one and struck out one. He was replaced by senior Kurt Rebone who started the fifth, and Rebone was replaced one inning later by senior Cole Millerd.
Rebone, a left-hander, sent the Jackrabbits down in order in the fifth with one strikeout. Millerd gave up consecutive singles to Padilla and Garcia to begin the sixth, but then retired the next three hitters. The senior then retired the side in the top of the seventh, and went on to get the win.
Update: Laguna Beach was eliminated from the Division 4 playoffs Tuesday following a 12-2 second-round loss at Riverside La Sierra.