Terry Bernal/Daily Journal
Pacifica American’s fairytale season came to an end Saturday, as the 12-year-old All-Star squad from fell 11-2 to Mountain Ridge in the Little League Baseball West Regional in San Bernardino. Pacifica tabbed 201 hits through 18 games this postseason. Cleanup hitter Justice Turner, above, tabbed team hit No. 200 in the fifth inning Saturday with a line-drive single to right field
Pacifica American third-base coach Dave Shaw attends to Christian Falk, who was hit by a pitch in the West Regional title game Saturday night.
SAN BERNARDINO — Even in the midst of a season-ending defeat, Pacifica American played baseball the way the game is meant to be played.
Nevada state-champion Mountain Ridge eliminated Pacifica from the Little League Baseball West Regional playoffs with an 11-2 victory in Saturday’s championship showdown at Al Houghton Stadium in San Bernardino. It is a historic win, as Mountain Ridge becomes the first team in Nevada history to advance to the Little League World Series.
But after Mountain Ridge capped the night’s scoring in the sixth inning on a booming solo home run by cleanup hitter Bradley Stone, Pacifica demonstrated the sheer love of the game which brought them within six innings of a trip to Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
With one on and one out in the sixth, Mountain Ridge was threatening to mount another rally when Pacifica relief pitcher Chris Rodriguez induced a potential double-play grounder to second base. With the ball hit softly, Pacifica second baseman Tyler Shaw hurried an underhand feed to shortstop Christian Falk. As Falk galloped over the bag, he took the throw barehanded and fired to first base in an attempt to complete the twin killing.
But something of a boyish grin rose to the surface of the shortstop’s face — with his team certain defeat amid an 11-2 rout, while knowing it would be the final inning of their fairytale season — and in that moment Christian Falk exuded the simple joy of playing the game.
Pacifica did not turn the double play. His throw sailed wide, just beyond the outstretched glove of first baseman Andrew Harkness. Pacifica’s season concluded on that kind of night, where the little things didn’t go their way. Meanwhile, the little things benefitted Mountain Ridge, and they took advantage by turning the sum into an early, insurmountable lead.
Since District 52 play opened on June 28, Pacifica posted a 14-4 record. All four of the team’s loses came in the West Regional tournament, which began Aug. 1. Still, the nine days spent in the baseball paradise of the West Regional Little League Headquarters in San Bernardino was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a Pacifica team which, in being the last California Little League team left standing, celebrated a season for the ages.
“We had lots of fun,” Rodriguez said. “Just being with your teammates the whole summer, it just makes it better than it already is.”
In Saturday’s first inning, though, it was clear Mountain Ridge was a team of destiny. With Pacifica playing as the home team — Mountain Ridge won a coin flip held immediately after Friday’s semifinals and chose to play as the away team — the Pacifica defense endured an inning like one to which they, as an offensive juggernaut this season, subjected so many opposing teams.
Mountain Ridge scored nine times in the inning, sending 12 batters to the plate. By the time the half inning was over, Pacifica trailed by its greatest first-inning deficit of the postseason, before the team had even taken an at-bat.
A day after Mountain Ridge left-hander Austin Kryszczuk pitched a complete-game masterpiece in Friday’s 5-1 semifinal win over Southern California champ Encinitas, the right-handed slugger had his best offensive inning of the postseason by reaching base twice. In Kryszczuk’s first at-bat, he drew a one-out walk to start the rally. After Mountain Ridge batted around, and knocked out Pacifica starting pitcher Cruise Thompson in the process, Kryszczuk capped the nine-run rally with a thundering three-run home run — his fifth of the tournament.
Between Thompson and reliever Christian Falk, Pacifica yielded five hits and four walks in the inning.
“To score nine runs in the top of the first in a championship game was huge for us,” Kryszczuk said.
Just one night after Pacifica’s 1-0 semifinal win over Honolulu, Pacifica manager Steve Falk said he was hoping to turn the championship game into an offensive slugfest after the opening half frame, similar to his team’s 17-15 victory in the Section 2 championship game July 26 to advance to regional play.
“I was hoping,” Falk said. “We’ve seen good pitching the whole time. It seems we’re getting every team’s No. 1. It seems every team has a guy throwing mid-70s. For a Little Leaguer, that’s some great heat.”
Pacifica answered by making a little noise, rallying for two runs in the bottom of the frame. Thompson reached on an error then moved to third on a double by Elijah Ricks. Thompson scored on a groundout by Christian Falk, moving Ricks to third. Justice Turner followed with a sacrifice fly to plate Ricks, cutting Mountain Ridge’s lead to 9-2.
But Mountain Ridge made a penultimate statement with a lone run in the top of the second. Stone led off with double to left-center. He moved to third on a groundout by Justin Hausner. Then with two outs, Alex Barker shot an RBI single to right to up Mountain Ridge’s lead to 10-2, accounting for all the night’s scoring save Stone’s sixth-inning solo shot.
Stone was 3 for 3 in the game and fell a triple short of the cycle. Throughout the tournament he batted .529 (9 for 17).
Mountain Ridge starting pitcher Brennan Holligan earned the win, working 3 1/3 innings while striking out four against no walks. The right-hander’s night ended after he hit three of the last five batters he faced, drilling Christian Falk in the left elbow then Rodriguez square in the ribs, before tagging Jordan Salgado with a glancing shot to the helmet.
Pacifica’s Shane Hawkins immediately locked up with Mountain Ridge reliever Josh Zuehlsdorff. Hawkins battled for a 12-pitch walk, but Pacifica stranded the bases loaded. In the fifth, Pacifica again loaded the bases with two outs, but Mountain Ridge reliever Zachary Hare entered to leave them loaded. The right-hander then retired the side in order in the sixth to end it.
After Pacifica scored in double figures in seven consecutive games leading into regional play, the team didn’t score in double figures at all through six games in San Bernardino.
“We did score a lot of runs before but we saw good pitching and we battled,” Steve Falk said. “We made it into the final. I can’t complain. Sure, I’d like to get onto a plane (to Williamsport) in the morning. But I can’t complain about this.”
The 2014 Pacifica American team will be remembered as an offensive juggernaut, which hit .422 on the season. In fact, the team surpassed the 200-hit mark Saturday. No. 200 came off the bat of Turner with a line drive single to right in the fifth.
However, the character of the team was defined by its manager, Steve Falk, who even in the wake of the regional championship loss was capable of flashing a patented boyish smile of his own. Yes, Christian Falk is a chip off the old block. And for Pacifica American, and for the game of baseball in general, that is a extraordinarily good thing.
“I know what they’re capable of, and I was hoping they could get through it,” Steve Falk said of his frame of mind through the first inning. “I just keep saying, they’re 12. They’re not getting paid. They’re 12.”
Indeed, in the grand scheme of things, it was a fairytale summer for 12 boys amid their middle school summer. And it was a historic one. In advancing to Saturday’s regional championship, Pacifica American is by far the greatest 12-year-old team P-Town has ever produced.