IRVINE — In baseball, it's said that chicks dig the long ball.
But fans of the Newport Harbor Baseball Assn. Bronco All-Star team had just as much reason Saturday to dig the curveball of Clay Liolios.
Trying to protect a one-run lead in the seventh inning, Liolios fell behind in the count to Spencer Rasmussen and Parker Haskell of Placentia "A," two players who had hit a home run earlier in the game.
Liolios came back with his curveball both times. He got Rasmussen to ground out to first for the first out, and Haskell to fly out to center for the final out.
The NHBA Bronco squad had hung on for a big 8-7 victory in the PONY Southern California Central Region Tournament at Hicks Canyon Park, moving just a game away from capturing the Region title.
Newport Harbor plays in the Region championship game at 12:30 p.m. Sunday against either Cypress or Irvine, who played later Saturday. Newport Harbor can advance to the Super Region tournament with a win. Even with a loss, Newport Harbor can advance to the Super Region tournament as Region runner-up, by winning a subsequent game at 3 p.m.
"We get to go into [Sunday] with the championship in our hands, and two opportunities to advance to Supers," Newport Harbor Manager Mike Greer said. "We're going to do everything we can to take care of business in the first game, and bring another banner back to Newport Harbor."
NHBA improved to 4-1 this year against its rival, Placentia "A." Liolios was a big reason why, finishing three for four with a home run and two runs batted in. He was part of a big second inning for the winners, who put up five runs to jump ahead of Placentia, 5-2.
With one out, Newport Harbor got a single to center by Luke Bashore. Logan Pence reached on an error, and Chase Greer walked to load the bases.
An out later, Bashore scored on a passed ball. Then leadoff hitter Simon Copeman brought home both of the other two baserunners with a double to right, and Liolios followed with a two-run home run to left.
"He hung a changeup, so I just did my job," Liolios said.
Placentia rallied to tie the score at 5-5 on Rasmussen's two-run homer to center. Newport Harbor took the lead again with single runs in the fourth and fifth. But Placentia refused to go away, tying the score at 7-7 on Haskell's home run in the bottom of the fifth. At that point, Liolios relieved Copeman on the mound.
Newport Harbor took the lead again in the top of the sixth. Kyle Binford sparked the rally, lacing a two-out single to center, advancing to second on a passed ball before stealing third as Trey Genova walked. Binford then scored on another passed ball, giving Newport Harbor an 8-7 lead.
On the mound, Liolios got out of a sticky situation in the bottom of the inning. Placentia's Joshua Carrera led off with a walk, and stole second. Then, he broke for third on Michael Cohen's sacrifice bunt.
The identical play had scored a run in the second inning, after Carrera broke for home following the play at first. This time, Newport Harbor was ready. Binford, the second baseman who was covering first, threw a strike home to catcher Braham Duncan, who applied the tag to deny the tying run from scoring.
"Since I already saw them do it, I knew what they were doing," Binford said. "I just executed it the same way, so I could get two outs."
Placentia got runners on the corners with two outs, but Liolios got out of the jam by inducing a fly ball to right field. It was easier in the bottom of the seventh, as he set Placentia down in order to earn the win.
Copeman, Duncan, Binford and Bashore all had two hits for Newport Harbor, which out-hit Placentia, 13-6. Luke Hatfield also contributed for NHBA, which never trailed after that second-inning outburst.
Mike Greer did not commit to his starting pitcher for Sunday's title game, but he has plenty of options. Nearly all of the players on the team can pitch, and everyone is eligible except for Copeman, who went 4 2/3 innings on Saturday.
And Greer knows he can count on his team to keep swinging the bat.
"This is a tough park to hold us down," he said. "We've got some big sticks, and we can leave the yard up and down the lineup. We're in a good spot."
The players appear ready to perform. They know what's at stake.
"We're hoping to get another banner, like we did in District," Binford said.