LONG BEACH — With two out and two strikes on him, and trailing by a single run in the bottom of the sixth inning Tuesday, Max Willingham delivered and the Marina High baseball team is on its way to Dodger Stadium.
Lucky No. 13, who bats No. 9 in the Marina lineup, sent a 1-2 pitch up the middle with bases loaded for a two-run single that ultimately proved the difference in the Vikings' come-from-behind, 6-5 victory over Los Angeles Loyola.
"I didn't hit the ball extremely hard. I was just hoping it would get through the infield," said Willingham, the senior who starts at second base and came up with his only hit of the game at its most crucial moment. "Once I saw it go through, I knew we had a shot.
"I've never been so excited in my life. To win like this, and to get to Dodger Stadium, is just unreal. This was a great win for our team."
Marina's stunning rally in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 semifinal game at Blair Field catapulted the Vikings onward toward Friday's title game. The Vikings will meet North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake at 8 p.m. at Chavez Ravine.
The Vikings, who have won 15 of their last 17 games, will take a nine-game win streak into Friday's final.
Marina (22-8) is playing in its first Southern Section final since it won the 2003 Division 1 title under then-head coach Paul Renfrow.
Renfrow, still on the Marina staff, also took the Vikings to their first baseball title, the 5-A Division crown, in 1990.
It was a Sunset League vs. Mission League semifinal showdown at Blair Field Tuesday. Harvard-Westlake, which shared the Mission League title with Loyola and is the division's No. 3 seed, held off Los Alamitos, 3-2, in the second game.
Trailing, 5-3, and with the meat of its lineup coming to bat, junior Austin Sojka took the first pitch offered in the sixth by Loyola's Nathan Hadley for a single to right field. Designated and clean-up hitter, senior Casey Hayes, followed with a single that went past Cubs' diving third baseman Chad Powers and into right field. Sojka hustled to third base on the play to put runners at the corners.
Senior Tyler Mildenberg gave Marina its third consecutive single and pulled the Vikings to within 5-4 with an RBI to right field that scored Sojka. With one out, senior Grant Mayeaux dropped a single into right field to load the bases. With two out, Willingham's hit up the middle went over both the second base bag and glove of out-stretched Loyola shortstop Angelo Armenta. The single brought home both pinch runner Brett Lynn and Mildenberg and gave the Vikings the lead for good.
Heading into the bottom of the sixth, Loyola had out-hit Marina, 9-4.
Lead-off hitter Jake Bauers, who already was two for three, was in the on-deck circle and following Willingham.
"I was standing there and for some reason, I knew Willingham was going to get it done," the senior said. "It was so great to watch it actually happen."
Steven Gingery, a left-handed sophomore who relieved starter Jackson Westermeyer one batter into the third inning, struck out two in the top of the seventh including Cubs' lead-off hitter Tristan Chester to end the game.
Gingery shut out the Cubs upon entering the game. He gave up two hits, two walks and hit a batter, and registered all five of his strikeouts over the final two innings.
"He was dominating on the hill," Marina Coach Bob Marshall said of Gingery. "I thought he did a fantastic job. Jack [Westermeyer] was snake-bitten. They had four infield hits and two others that dropped into the outfield."
Marina had taken a 2-0 lead in its first at-bat behind an RBI groundout by Hayes and when senior Jake Arledge, who had been hit by a pitch, scored on a passed ball.
Bauers lined a single to right field on his first pitch to start Marina's offense for the day.
Then the wheels fell off for the Vikings. Loyola (22-11) scored five runs on seven hits and was aided by a pair of Marina errors in the top of the second. The Cubs strung together four consecutive hits and sent 11 batters to the plate in the inning.
After the second inning was complete, Marshall proved seer.
"I told the guys after the second inning that we would beat them, 6-5," he said of what he had predicted.
After the game, several Marina players confirmed Marshall's prognosis.
"We just scraped and kept at it," Marshall said of his team's climb back from its three-run deficit. "I told the guys that we cannot think of having just one big inning, but to just continue to chip away. It was a great comeback."
Marina began its way back with a two-out rally in the third that started with a double to the corner of left field by Arledge who scored on an RBI single by Sojka, making it 5-3.
Then came the magical sixth inning for the Vikings.
"It's going to be awesome," Bauers said of the impending trip to Dodger Stadium.
Marshall said that senior left-hander Austin Olivas (7-3) will start Friday's championship game.
Marina, runner-up to the Sunset League title, had advanced to Tuesday's semifinals by eliminating visiting Agoura, 3-1, in a quarterfinal game Friday. Bauers bombed the Chargers with a pair of home runs and Olivas notched the win in a complete-game performance.
Bauers, a University of Hawaii commit, provided the Vikings with all the runs they would need. He blasted his first home run to lead off the bottom of the first to give Marina the lead for good. In his second at-bat, he rocketed a shot to deep center field, well past the 360-foot mark on the outfield fence in the third inning.
Bauers was intentionally walked in his third at-bat which came in the fifth inning.
Mayeaux had an RBI fly out to right field in the bottom of the fourth that took the Marina lead to 3-1.
"That first home run had to go more than 400 feet," Marshall said. "He crushed it."
Olivas has two complete-game victories in the postseason under his belt. He also was on the mound when Marina started its playoff run with a 2-1 victory on March 16 over Norco.
"We're hot," Bauers had said after the Agoura game, regarding Marina's surge in the latter-half of the season. "We're getting good pitching, timely hitting and we're really playing well right now. That's how you want to be playing at this point of the season."
Vikings in CIF Final
Who: Marina vs. No. 3 Harvard-Westlake
What: CIF-SS Division 1 title game
Where: Dodger Stadium
When: Friday, 8 p.m.
Ticket info: General admission, $10; Student (with high school I.D.), $5; Child, $5 (Ages 5-13 years old). Parking is free.