NHBA finds a way

FOUNTAIN VALLEY — The game started about 90 minutes late Saturday afternoon, and the reason why was understandable.

Mission Viejo and Irvine had a 14-inning thriller in the first game of the day at Mile Square Park, which pushed back all the rest of the games at the PONY Southern California Central Bronco 11-and-under Region Tournament. The Newport Harbor Baseball Assn. tournament opener against Placentia "B" didn't start anywhere close to the scheduled 2 p.m. start time.

Newport Harbor also started late, hitting-wise. But all that did was set the scene for a thrilling comeback.

Down to their final out, the Newport Harbor Bronco 11Us rallied for a 6-4, eight-inning victory. They opened the double-elimination tournament with a bang.

Newport Harbor plays Mission Viejo on Sunday at 11:30 a.m., back at Mile Square. The winner of that game advances to the region championship game on Monday at 7:30 p.m., while the loser has an elimination game on Sunday at 4:30 p.m.

Two teams from the seven-team region tournament advance to the super regional in Whittier, which starts Thursday. Don't count out Newport Harbor.

"It's a gutsy group," said Newport Harbor Manager Bobby Hatfield, whose team finished second at the district tournament June 23 to qualify for regionals. "The bottom line is that we play hard for seven innings, we pitch the ball really well and we catch the ball in the field really well. If our bats are there, we're tough to beat. Basically, it's a team that understands we're playing a full baseball game, and you saw that today. It's a pretty resilient team, and they're great teammates."

It was definitely a team effort. Placentia starting pitcher Trevor Smith was dealing early, retiring the first eight Newport Harbor batters. Things still looked bleak for the locals in the top of the seventh inning. Newport Harbor was down, 4-3, with nobody on base and two outs. Yet the squad somehow found a way.

Logan Pence ripped a single to right, and Jack Bibb followed with a full-count walk. Clay Liolios then laced a single to center, which landed just in front of the Placentia center fielder and scored Pence.

"It felt pretty good," Liolios said. "I was excited. I think the outfielder would have caught it, but it dropped."

Liolios wasn't through with nervous situations. He came in to pitch in the bottom of the seventh, needing to shut down Placentia to send the game to extra innings. He did just that, giving up a one-out single but having that erased as catcher Braham Duncan threw out the runner trying to steal.

"I like closing it out," said Liolios, who got the win with two innings of scoreless relief. "I like being under pressure."

Newport Harbor then came alive in the top of the eighth. With one out, Kyle Binford walked, and Simon Copeman followed with his second double of the game to left. With runners on second and third, Placentia elected to intentionally walk Luke Bashore.

Luke Hatfield came to the plate, but first the Placentia pitcher was called for a balk that scored the go-ahead run. Hatfield followed by getting down a squeeze bunt, scoring Copeman and giving Newport Harbor an important insurance run.

As it turned out, Liolios didn't need it, sending down Placentia in order in the bottom of the eighth.

Duncan was Newport Harbor's starting pitcher, going four innings. He kept his team in the game, but said afterward that he needed to work on "throwing the ball harder, getting more fire." But Duncan knows that's not a problem with the Newport Harbor squad as a whole.

"Our team is well-rounded," Duncan said. "We've got all the skills."

Liolios (two runs batted in) and Pence each had a pair of singles, and Binford also had an RBI single in the fourth that scored Duncan. Pence, who pitched two scoreless innings in relief of Duncan, was two for four with two runs scored.

Trey Genova, Johnny Brigandi, Brendan Duffy and Chase Greer also contributed for Newport Harbor, which may need to up its game to hang with Mission Viejo, a team that shut out Newport Harbor in a Memorial Day tournament.

"[Placentia] was a good baseball team and they basically outplayed us, as far as I could tell," Bobby Hatfield said. "It looked pretty dim with nobody on and two outs [in the seventh]. We can't hit the ball like that [Sunday], that's for sure."

Leadoff hitter Jake Okamoto (two for three with a double) and Aaron Milby (three for four) led Placentia "B."

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