BANGOR, Maine — The Lemon Grove, Calif., all-stars have been playing a game of capture the flag throughout the summer — specifically Senior League championship banners.
And from a modest beginning in their southern California district through various divisional and regional tournaments, they’re now just one win away from the biggest flag of all after riding the four-hit pitching of Frankie Nunez to a 6-1 victory over Grand Rapids, Mich., on Friday in the semifinals of the Senior League World Series at Mansfield Stadium.
“We’ve got five championship flags, and we’ve been waiting for that one last one,” said Lemon Grove manager Andre Simpson. “We call it Flag Day. So far we’re 5-0 on Flag Day, and we want to go 6-0.”
Lemon Grove, which defeated defending SLWS champion Hilo, Hawaii, in the U.S. West championship game to earn its trip across the continent, will face Latin America champion Guatemala City, Guatemala, in a nationally televised (ESPNU) game for the 2012 world title at 2 p.m. Saturday.
“Everyone dreams this but it doesn’t come true for everybody,” said Lemon Grove designated hitter Ray Peterson, who contributed a double, single, two RBIs and two runs scored to the semifinal victory. “But we’re dreaming it and it’s coming true.”
Both finalists are unbeaten in SLWS play, Lemon Grove at 5-0 and Guatemala City at 4-0.
“[Lemon Grove is] a good team, there’s no doubt about it,” said Grand Rapids manager George Rosinski, whose team dropped a 6-1 decision to Guatemala City during Day 3 of pool play on Tuesday. “We’re going to have an exciting day tomorrow. I think a couple of good teams will represent, and may the best one win.”
Nunez struck out six batters while walking just one during a 97-pitch complete-game performance.
My two-seam fastball was working the most,” said Nunez, who will be a senior at Helix Charter High School in Lemon Grove this fall. “A couple of times I tried the four-seamer but it was too high. It wasn’t working, but I figured that out in the beginning of the game and stuck with my two-seamer.”
The fast-working righthander was at his best late in the contest — retiring 14 of the last 15 batters he faced.
“Once I found my rhythm I just kept going with it,” said Nunez. “I wasn’t going to change anything up. I just had to stick with what was working for me.”
Esteban Lieras also doubled and singled as part of Lemon Grove’s eight-hit offense, while Deandre Simpson hit an RBI double.
Lemon Grove jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning against Grand Rapids starter Dom Cintorino.
Brad Moreno drew a leadoff walk and Lieras grounded a potential double-play ball off the second-base bag and into shallow center field for a single that put runners on first and second with no one out.
A wild pitch advanced the runners to second and third before Moreno scored on a sacrifice fly to center by Peterson, and Lieras scored on a fielder’s choice grounder to short by Alex Estrada.
Grand Rapids cut the gap to 2-1 with an unearned run in the third, as Parker DeVoogd reached on a fielder’s choice, advanced to third on a throwing error after an infield hit by Devin Husted and scored on a sacrifice fly by Brad Buurstra.
But Lemon Grove countered with three runs in the bottom of the fourth to build a 5-1 advantage.
Moreno was hit by a pitch and stole second before Lieras, Peterson and Deandre Simpson hit consecutive RBI doubles. Lieras’ double was a blooper to right-center, while Peterson and Simpson followed with sharp line drives to the left-center field gap.
“The pitcher was hanging a lot of breaking balls over the plate,” said Peterson. “So in that at-bat I watched the first pitch because I wanted to see if he was going to hang it again and he threw it for a strike.
“My approach was that he wasn’t going to throw me a fastball and he was hanging a lot of curveballs, so on that next pitch I was just looking to crush it.”
Lemon Grove added its final run in the bottom of the sixth, as a single to center by Peterson and walks to Simpson and Estrada loaded the bases with one out before Peterson scored on a sacrifice fly to center by Nunez.