Citrus Park stumbles on run to title

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Throughout its 21-game playoff run to the U.S. semifinals at the Little League World Series, the Citrus Park team from northwest Hillsborough made its living playing error-free baseball.

Gold Glove-caliber defense with pinpoint accurate pitching and timely hitting combined for a winning formula all the way to Williamsport.

With an opportunity to advance to the U.S. championship in the balance though, an out-of-character Citrus Park team committed a couple of costly mistakes.

And against powerful South Lake Charles LL (Louisiana), led by Kennon Fontenot's two-hit gem, those mistakes were magnified in a 6-1 loss Thursday.

"(Fontenot) did a great job, there's no doubt about it," Citrus Park manager Joe McGuire said. "We only had two hits and they weren't hit that hard. He pitched a great game."

Both starting pitchers had control problems in the first inning. Three of Fontenot's first six pitches missed the catcher's mitt.

Citrus Park starter Mike McGuire, who pitched for the first time since injuring his arm in the region final, hit two batters in a row to put runners at first and second with one out in the first, but consecutive force plays at third allowed Citrus Park to escape.

McGuire's control issues continued into the second inning. After the leadoff batter reached on an error, McGuire gave up the game's first hit to Hunter Dupin. A wild pitch allowed the runners to advance, and McGuire drilled Colton Hunt in the back to load the bases.

Hunter Self's RBI groundout gave Louisiana a 1-0 lead. After another walk to load the bases, McGuire's night was done.

"(Wednesday) he (threw) 25 pitches and it didn't hurt," the elder McGuire said. "He's been our best pitcher. He was 7-0 coming into this game tonight and pretty much dominated almost every game. I wouldn't say he was 100 percent, but he gave it a shot.

"I knew in the first inning when they hit a few balls that it would be about one more inning before I had to take him out."

Back home, about 100 people showed up at the Wild Wing Cafe on Anderson Road, the official watch party headquarters of the Citrus Park Little League All-Stars.

Rolando Lastra, uncle of first baseman Danny Lastra, drove from Valrico to watch the game.

"The other games I have watched at home by myself so I can focus on the game," he said. "That was pool play. They could still lose a game. It's do or die now. I just felt like today I needed to be around other Citrus Park friends."

But mistakes continued to plague Citrus Park. Relief pitcher Kevin Merrell walked his first batter with the bases loaded, and Fontenot's RBI groundout made it 3-0.

In the third, Merrell gave up a leadoff home run to Bryce Jordan.

In the fourth, Levi Gilcrease — Citrus Park's third pitcher — uncorked a wild pitch that brought home a run, and Beau Jordan's RBI double extended Louisiana's lead to 6-1.

Louisiana, meanwhile, cruised behind Fontenot, who had 11 strikeouts.

His fastball was consistently near 80 mph, according to ESPN. With the Little League mound (46 feet) closer to home plate than in Major League Baseball (60 feet, 6 inches), that's the equivalent of a 100 mph-plus pitch.

Fontenot's only trouble came in the third, when he walked Austin McCullers, who went to second on a wild pitch. Daniel Martin, running for McCullers, came home later in the inning on another wild pitch for Citrus Park's only run.

"We have a great bunch of kids," McGuire, the manager, said. "To be one of the best four in the United States isn't bad."

"It's a great accomplishment for them," said Robert Miller, uncle of player Darren Miller. "I'm so proud of all 12 of them. Win or lose, they're the best. They're great role models for anybody out there."

Louisiana advances to the U.S. final Saturday, where it will play Waipio LL (Waipahu, Hawaii) for the championship.

In the international semifinal, Matamoros LL (Mexico), behind Ruben Molina's three-RBI triple in the fourth inning, defeated Coquivacoa LL (Maracaibo, Venezuela) 5-2 to advance to the final.

Mexico will face Edogawa Minami LL (Tokyo, Japan) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday for the international championship.

Times staff writer Rodney Thrash contributed to this report.

Louisiana 6

Citrus Park 1

Citrus Park stumbles on run to title 08/21/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 22, 2008 1:14pm]

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