The situation seemed pretty dire after Monday’s heartbreaking 6-5 loss in eight innings to Hawaii, a game that Sunnyside committed eight errors, making it unable to cash in on a Herculean effort by standout Damian Lorta.
“We had our heads down,” Sunnyside pitcher Juan Abril told me over the phone from the West Regional at San Bernardino, Calif. “We made too many errors and we lost our confidence. We knew we were better than that and we can win if we put our minds to it.”
A loss is foreign to this team that traveled to California with an 8-0 record through the district and state tournaments, winning five of those games by mercy rule. Sunnyside outscored opponents 88-9 through those first eight games. Becoming Tucson’s first team in 33 years to make the Little League World Series at Williamsport, Pa., seemed inevitable.
“I know we have a really good squad,” Sunnyside manager Frank Rivero told me. “We just had a bad day for the defense. We made a couple of bad plays. But we are a good team with a lot of talent and I’m confident we are still headed to Williamsport.”
Sunnyside entered Tuesday’s game against Nevada not only facing the challenge of having to win all four of its potential remaining games in five days to advance to the Little League World Series. Rivero also realized that although his pitching staff is deep, he needed to save some arms for the arduous schedule ahead if the team could get by Nevada.
The team blew past Nevada 13-1 in five innings behind 16 hits, including home runs by Lorta (his second of the regional and fifth of the summer) and first baseman Izaiah Moraga — both of whom had three hits.
Moraga led Sunnyside with four RBIs and Lorta and Michael Muniz each had two RBIs.
Leadoff batter Aciel Guillen and Jordan Mayboca contributed to the hitting onslaught with two hits and an RBI each.
As overpowering as Sunnyside’s hitting was, its pitching by Abril was just as uplifting to a team that needed a boost after Monday’s loss. Sunnyside also had only one error.
The little-used Abril — who entered the game having pitched only 2 1/3 innings in Sunnyside’s previous nine games this summer — allowed Rivero to keep his other arms fresh by pitching the five innings and giving up only three hits. He did not walk a batter and he struck out two.
“I was happy to help the team out,” Abril said. “I was a little nervous at first but I was happy and excited to be out there. It’s been a while since I pitched, but I got my confidence back right away and I was hitting my spots.”
Abril was involved in a scary moment when a hard-hit line drive by a Nevada player came screaming at him in the fifth inning. He managed to snag the ball with his glove for the out. He and his teammates had a good laugh about the play near the mound.
“I was scared. I thought that was the end,” he said with a laugh. “I looked down and saw the ball in the glove. I was afraid I dropped it but it was there.”
Rivero was not forced to use Lorta on the mound again in the win-or-go-home scenario. Lorta pitched 3 1/3 innings on Monday night and did not allow a hit (with eight strikeouts and no walks) until Hawaii scored the winning run on a walk-off single.
Sunnyside was able to also rest Monday’s starter Juan Hernandez, who pitched 3 2/3 innings and was in control until Hawaii rallied for four runs in the fourth. Rivero said he can throw Hernandez or Lorta again on Friday if Sunnyside beats Southern California on Wednesday night in the next elimination round.
Asked who he will pitch on Wednesday, Rivero said, “We will pitch Izaiah or possibly (his son) Francisco. It all depends on the situation and who matches up the best against Southern California’s lineup.”
Rivero added that “more than half of our team can pitch, so I’m not concerned about who we put out there.”
At the end of the game against Nevada, the crowd of parents, family and friends of the team was chanting “Sun-ny-side! Sun-ny-side!”
Only three wins now separate the team from its goal to head to Williamsport. Sunnyside is building on the success achieved from last year’s team that also made it to regionals but lost its first two games.
“All we have to do is play hard and keep our confidence up, and we can win any game,” Abril said.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.