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NYBC quarterfinals bring plenty of drama

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The big leagues aren't the only place you'll find late-inning drama.

The National Youth Baseball Championships wound its way through the quarterfinals Saturday, and the first two games both brought compelling theater to Gameday Fields. One act involved a team desperately trying to protect a narrow lead, and the other brought a late-game reversal of fortune.

The two teams that emerged victorious from the top of the bracket -- Miami-based Team MVP and the SY Titans from Santa Ynez, Calif. -- will face off Sunday in the semifinals. BPA DeMarini, which defeated two-time defending champions Houston Banditos, and Diamond MVP became the final team to advance with a victory over the EM Majors.

Team MVP played early Saturday against the Lamorinda Spartans, and the first inning never would've suggested a dramatic finish. Team MVP scored seven runs in the first inning, aided by six walks from the Lamorinda starter, and came back to score three more runs in the second.

But that was all the offense Team MVP would get, and Lamorinda spent the rest of the day working its way back into the game. The Spartans scored six times in the bottom of the second inning to make it a 10-6 game, and Israel Quintana homered in the bottom of the sixth to pull within two runs.

Team MVP would close out the home team for a 10-8 win that was a little closer than it would've liked, and coach Mandy Sierra told his team he was proud of its resilience. But Sierra also told his players that they came close to letting one get away and that they'd need to play better Sunday.

"One of the biggest problems we had in this game was that we jumped out ahead of them," he said. "Once we were out ahead, we sort of laid back a little bit. We threw away a lot of opportunities where we left runners on base to get some insurance runs, and we almost needed them at the end.

"We've played this team a lot of times. In the last month, I think we've played four or five times, and it's always been tough. We played them in California, we played them in Puerto Rico and now twice here. We had to beat them to actually get here, and to win here doubles the sweetness."

Eight different players scored for Team MVP, which had also beaten Lamorinda in Friday's qualifying round. Jake Holland, who started at catcher, threw three solid innings to take the victory. Sierra said the win felt great for his players because of how hard they've worked to get to this point.

"We've been everywhere. We've traveled so much," said Sierra of Team MVP. "The experiences these kids have had this year have been outrageous. They don't realize that right now. A couple years down the road, they'll sit back and say, 'I can't believe I went to Las Vegas, California and Puerto Rico to compete against the top talent in the country.' And they've been very successful at it."

The Titans, playing in the second quarterfinal of the day, found themselves in a taut pitchers' duel against the Houston-based TC Nationals Force. The Titans held a 1-0 edge after four innings, but Cade Graves came through with a two-run chopper through the infield in the top of the fifth.

Did the Titans get down? No, they quickly got even. Pinch-hitter Cole Knightley started the inning with a single, and the next batter -- Conagher Sands -- powered a two-run homer over the center-field fence. The Titans would score six more times in the fifth inning en route to a 9-2 victory.

David Lawrence, manager of the SY Titans, said he was thrilled to see their winning effort.

"The kids never give up," he said. "We've played a lot of baseball and we have all the confidence in the world. When we went down 2-1, it was, 'Let's make it happen. Execute.' A kid came off the bench that hasn't been in the game -- Cole Knightley -- and gets a base hit. We got the big home run from Conagher Sands and took the lead. From there, it was just run after run after run."

The crazy part? The Titans almost didn't make it to the tournament. Their West Coast qualifier was canceled, and the Titans had to come to Memphis and win another tourney to qualify.

"We booked a trip and we called it the Ten-tucky trip, because we went to Tennessee and we also went to Kentucky," said Lawrence. "We were here for 10 days, and it was a short three weeks ago. We came here for four days and won a tournament, and we went to Nashville for three nights, goofed off and went to a water park. And then we went to Kentucky for four days and played baseball. It was a nice 10-day trip. I was telling them they got their first experience being Minor Leaguers."

Saturday's third game brought perhaps the biggest upset of the tournament. The Banditos had won the tourney two times in a row, and they took an 18-0 victory in their second qualifying game on Friday. But BPA DeMarini, based in Lake Forest, Calif., took it to the Banditos early on Saturday.

"I respect those guys. Who can't respect those guys?" said BPA DeMarini coach Wade Jackson. "They deserve it. But our guys came out and did what they had to do against them."

BPA scored three times in the first inning and held a 5-2 lead after the third, and it weathered a late Houston run to deliver a devastating counter-punch. BPA DeMarini finished strong, scoring five times in the sixth inning inning to salt away a 10-3 victory and a place in the second semifinal.

"It was a nail-biter," said Jackson. "I was telling the boys that top to bottom, it was going to be a battle. The best thing you can do is put up three or four runs in the first inning on somebody. Knock them down, then come out and do what we do on the mound and on defense. It's like I tell my boys: 'If we throw strikes and we play defense, we can play with anybody in the country.'"

The final game of the day was the quickest (one hour, 40 minutes) and the most competitive. Diamond MVP and the EM Majors combined for just three runs in the first four innings, but Diamond -- based out of Norwalk, Calif. -- pushed ahead in the bottom of the fifth inning with a two-run rally.

Joshua Mora netted a leadoff single in the fateful fifth and stole second base before scoring the tying run on a hit by Brandon Rodriguez. The go-ahead run scored on an error by the pitcher, and Nathaniel Delgado pitched a perfect sixth inning to seal the victory and the berth in the semifinals.

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for