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Northridge Plays Soggy, Loses, 4-3 : Baseball: Venezuela wins Little League championship when U.S. players fail to bounce back from three-hour rain delay.

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.

After a three-hour rain delay, Northridge was at times as sloppy as the field conditions when play resumed, losing, 4-3, to Maracaibo, Venezuela, in the Little League World Series championship on Saturday.

"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."

After the delay, Maracaibo racked up seven of its eight hits and Northridge had only three.

Still, Northridge (20-2) stayed close before the 15,000 left from the 35,000 in attendance before the delay. Maracaibo scored in the third and fourth innings, but Northridge answered with two in the bottom of the fourth to tie.

Maracaibo 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.

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

The opposite was true for Northridge.

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

Affected the most was Northridge right-hander Justin Gentile. He was much sharper before the rain, retiring seven of eight batters. There were two out with none on in 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 Maracaibo 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.

Maracaibo'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 after a pitch in the dirt that slipped past Cunningham only a few feet. The Northridge catcher picked up the ball in time to get Avila, but Gentile didn't cover the plate and Avila beat Cunningham's 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 Maracaibo'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 on his swing, a call the umpire had made on a different Maracaibo batter in the second inning. Avila scored on the wild pitch moments later.

"My son made the last out, and I am dejected, but I am so proud of him and of all the boys," said Greg Frost, father of Michael Frost, as the teams engaged in a postgame handshake. "We didn't lose because the Venezuelan kids were overage, or because somebody stepped out of the batter's box.

"We lost because we got beat by a team that played better than us today. Believe me, our kids will accept that."

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 found by a team doctor to have a broken thumb. . . . First baseman Matt Cassel led Northridge in batting during the series, going six for 14 for a .429 average. . . . Cesar Hidalgo, the Maracaibo pitcher, has a brother, Jose, playing for the Baltimore Orioles Class-A affiliate in Sarasota, Fla. . . . Maracaibo has been to the World Series seven times, but this is their first championship. Only Quebec, Canada, has earned more trips to the Series, with eight.

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