A rough first inning Tuesday led to an unexpected playoff exit for the Laguna Beach High baseball team.
The Breakers saw one of the best seasons in program history come to a halt in Riverside, as La Sierra, which scored early, and a lot, took a 12-2 second-round win in the CIF Southern Section Division 4 playoffs.
The Eagles erupted for eight runs in the bottom of the first inning, and Laguna never recovered. They scored four more runs in the fifth to extend their lead to 12-1.
La Sierra, the second-place team from the River Valley league, improved to 18-10 and advanced to Thursday's quarterfinals.
Laguna Coach Mike Bair said the first inning "meltdown," told the story of a game that got away quickly.
"Walks. We walked three, had a hit by pitch. Bad start," he said of the first inning. "Beyond that, they had seeing eye singles and every call went their way ... one of those unfortunate days."
The Laguna offense was paced by senior Larry Stewart with two hits, junior Grant Wilhelm had a run-scoring double, junior Steven Harrison doubled and was hit by a pitch, and junior Preston GrandPre singled and scored, and senior Cole Millerd singled.
Senior Robbie McInerny drove in the other Laguna run on an infield groundout.
"[The loss] did not indicate the team we are this season," Bair said. "We made mistakes and La Sierra is a good team who took advantage. It's unfortunate to go out that way, but in a one-and-done tournament you can't afford to have an off day."
Laguna nearly was a one-and-done team in its postseason opener May 17.
Bair asked his squad to reach down deep in the final inning of that opener against Victor Valley.
"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.
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.
Laguna, the No. 3 seed in the tournament, was able to extend its school-record win streak to 22 games.
"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. 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."
With one out in the bottom of the seventh, Laguna had a glimmer of hope when Stewart hit a slow grounder toward third base. The Roadrunners' Kaleyl Anderson had no chance on the play, and Stewart was safe at first. Senior Adam Rodner followed Stewart and was hit by a pitch. That brought 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.
With Jacob Padilla taking over the mound for Victor Valley, his first pitch was taken by Wilhelm for a fly ball to right field. The ball was bobbled and dropped, 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, McInerny was hit by a pitch which loaded the bases. On the next pitch, senior Blake Hester lined a single to right field to score GrandPre and make it a one-run game. 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."
Rees pitched the first four innings. He was replaced by senior Kurt Rebone who started the fifth, and Rebone was replaced one inning later by Millerd. Rebone, a left-hander, sent the Jackrabbits down in order in the fifth with one strikeout. Millerd gave up consecutive singles to begin the sixth, but then retired the next three hitters. He then retired the side in the top of the seventh, and went on to get the win.
Tuesday's loss at La Sierra ended a campaign that saw the Breakers set several new team records for the program.
They finished 26-3.
"Our home win against Victor Valley is a testament to how much this team believes in one another and fights for each other," Bair said. "An incredible win not soon to be forgotten.
"This is a family who will never forget each other. We had a great year and can hold our heads up high."