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Northridge Comes Up Short : Baseball: Venezuela overcomes three-hour rain delay to win Little League title, 4-3.

August 28, 1994|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — What is it with Northridge and Mother Nature?

An earthquake could be overcome. A thunderstorm could not.

Outplaying Maracaibo, Venezuela, until a three-hour rain delay, Northridge was at times as sloppy as the field conditions when play resumed, falling, 4-3, Saturday in the Little League World Series championship game at Howard J. Lamade Stadium.

"That rain really got us," Northridge shortstop Matt Fisher said. "We had the momentum, but after we stopped they scored right away and turned it around."

Although the game was scoreless when play was suspended in the third inning, Northridge batters were hitting the ball hard and a few of the Venezuelan players were beginning to lose their composure.

The opposite was true after the delay. Venezuela racked up seven of its eight hits and Northridge had only three.

Still, Northridge (20-2, 3-2 in series play) stayed close. The 15,000 fans who remained from the crowd of 35,000 before the delay watched Venezuela score runs in the third and fourth innings. But Northridge answered with two in the bottom of the fourth to tie.

Venezuela responded with two runs in the fifth on four hits and two wild pitches, but Spencer Gordon homered in the bottom of the inning to keep Northridge within one run.

Venezuela right-hander Cesar Hidalgo retired the side in order in the sixth, however, giving Latin America its first Series championship since Monterrey, Mexico, won in 1958.

"This was so important to us and to our country because no Latin American team had done it in so long," Manager Ramon Diaz said.

Hidalgo, who turned 13 today, seemed to get stronger after the delay, striking out the side in the third and finishing with 10 strikeouts.

No thunderstorm could compare to the devastating Jan. 17 earthquake, but to the Northridge players, the impact was jarring.

"The rain and thunder caused us to lose, it totally disrupted our game," outfielder Michael Nesbit said.

Impacted the greatest was Northridge right-hander Justin Gentile. He was much sharper before the rain, retiring seven of eight batters. There were two out with no one on base in the top of the third when play was suspended.

The thunderstorm, though short, dropped three inches of rain, and about 10 inches of standing water in the left-field corner had to be drained.

Also drained was Northridge Manager Larry Baca, who fell asleep in his dormitory during the delay.

"I was talking to (a Little League official), then the next thing I knew I was waking up," he said. "I felt the way I do after a game is over, worn out."

When the game resumed, Effinson Mora doubled down the right-field line. Gentile's next pitch sailed over catcher Matt Cunningham's head and Mora advanced to third. Esteban Avila singled sharply to right and Venezuela led, 1-0. Erik Villalobos singled to put runners on first and second, but Avila strayed too far off second after a pitch to Guillermo Quiroz and Cunningham threw to second to start a rundown that ended the inning.

Venezuela's baserunning bordered on reckless, but a gamble in the fifth scored the decisive run. After driving in the third run with a single and advancing to third on two more singles, Avila broke for home on a pitch in the dirt that slipped past Cunningham. The Northridge catcher picked up the ball in time to beat Avila to the plate, but Cunningham hesitated before breaking, and Avila beat the tag.

Gentile threw five wild pitches, all after the delay. Nine of the first 14 batters after play resumed reached base, seven on hits.

Ready in relief was Peter Tuber, who posted Northridge's first Series victory and won three decisions in the Western Regional. But Baca stuck with Gentile, who pitched a one-hit shutout in his other Series appearance.

"When we started again, Gentile had trouble getting his fastball down," Baca said. "I was one batter away from replacing him, but he did just well enough to stay in the game."

Baca disputed a call during Venezuela's fifth-inning rally. Hidalgo singled with two out to load the bases, but Baca claimed the hitter had stepped out of the batter's box, a call the umpire had made on a different Venezuelan batter in the second inning. Avila scored on the wild pitch moments later.

Hidalgo retired the side in order in the final inning to clinch the victory.

"We didn't lose because the Venezuelan kids were over-age, or because somebody stepped out of the batter's box," said Greg Frost, father of Northridge second baseman Michael Frost, as the teams engaged in a postgame handshake. "We lost because we got beat by a team that played better than us today. Believe me, our kids will accept that."

World Series Notes

Northridge center fielder Nathaniel Dunlap left the game in top of the fifth inning. He was hit in the right hand swinging at a fastball in the third inning and was diagnosed by a team doctor as having a broken thumb. . . . First baseman Matt Cassel led Northridge in hitting during the Series, going 6 for 14 for a .429 average.

Cesar Hidalgo, the Venezuelan pitcher, has a brother, Jose, playing for the Baltimore Orioles' Class-A affiliate in Sarasota, Fla. . . . Venezuela has been to the World Series seven times, but this is its first championship. Only Canada has earned more trips to the Series, with eight.

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