After playing 11 games in the district, state and regional tournaments, only two games now separate Sunnyside from advancing to the Little League World Series.
In manager Frank Rivero’s mind, a trip to Williamsport, Pa., is inevitable.
“After our practice today, I see a team that will be in Williamsport. I really do,” Rivero told me over the phone from Houghton Stadium at San Bernardino, Calif., where he saw Northern California lose to Hawaii 13-3 in five innings in the West Regional winner’s bracket final.
Sunnyside and Northern California (each 2-1 in the regionals) play in the elimination bracket final Friday night at 6. The game will be telecast live on ESPN. Sunnyside won the coin toss and will be the home team in the six-inning game.
The winner plays Hawaii (3-0) in the regional championship Saturday at 6 with that game also on ESPN. The champion will represent the West at Williamsport.
Rivero, whose complete confidence extends to his players, is not concerned about his team becoming awestruck by the increased interest in his team or being under the bright lights of national television. This is no longer a team only known by family and friends near Mission Manor Park on the southside, where they practice.
This is Tucson’s team now.
“After the first game (on Monday in which Sunnyside committed eight errors in a 6-5 loss to Hawaii in eight innings), I think the guys got over their nerves and expectations,” Rivero said. “I got with the boys and built their confidence back up. I tried to motivate them and make them realize they are here for a reason.
“Honestly, I know they will play on that field (against Northern California) like if they were playing at Mission Manor.”
Rivero said he will start steady right-hander Juan Abril against Northern California. Abril threw only 46 pitches in five innings when Sunnyside beat Nevada 13-1 on Tuesday afternoon. Abril allowed only three hits, struck out two batters and did not allow a walk.
Per Little League pitching rules, since Abril threw between 41 and 60 pitches, he was required to rest only two days (Wednesday and Thursday).
“The way he pitched (against Nevada), he was pretty dominant,” Rivero said. “When we pitched him in state he did not allow anything. His ERA is at 0.00. His curveball is so nasty and unhittable.”
Abril’s stats in his two appearances with Sunnyside this summer: 7 1/3 innings pitched, five hits, two runs (unearned), five strikeouts and no walks.
“I got my confidence back right away and I was hitting my spots,” said Abril, who had not pitched since July 20 in relief in the state tournament at Kingman.
Rivero can also use Monday’s starter Juan Hernandez and reliever Damian Lorta (because of their three-day rest from pitching) if necessary.
Lorta has been the story of the regional for Sunnyside to this point with four home runs and nine RBIs. He is batting .636 (7 for 11). In Sunnyside’s 11 games this summer, Lorta is a phenomenal 21 for 31 (.677) with 19 RBIs to go with seven home runs.
“He dominates. He is a very confident kid,” Rivero said.
“I’m hot,” Lorta said, “so it’s going to be tough to get me out.”
Northern California also possesses a dangerous power hitter. Chase Bentley is batting .818 (9 for 11) with four home runs and eight RBIs in the West Regional. His other teammates combined have three home runs and 13 RBIs in Northern California’s three games.
“I’m going to be really honest with you, when we face some kind of risk, we’re just going to walk him,” Rivero said.
Bentley, a tall-righthander, is slated to pitch for Northern California. He is a fastball pitcher and that bodes well for Sunnyside, according to Rivero.
“We’ll be up for the challenge because our guys do a good about hitting the fastball,” Rivero added.
Sunnyside has five batters hitting at least .429 at the regional — Michel Muniz (.750), Lorta (.636), Juan Hernandez (.571), Izaiah Moraga (.571), Jorge Zazueta (.500) and Jordan Mayboca (.429).
The team’s confidence comes after hours upon hours of practice leading to this point. Sunnyside practiced for more than four hours Thursday, mostly on fundamentals. Its eight errors against Hawaii occurred after committing 13 in the previous eight games combined.
“We worked on our defense,” said Rivero. “We made some errors in the first game that we did not make in the district and state tournaments.
“It was a very good practice working on that. Once again, we’re confident about our chances.”
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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.