All-Stars come home winnersThe team will participate in a homecoming parade downtown today at 1 p.m.
June 9, 2008 · Updated 7:50 PM
"WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. - Believe it or not, Bainbridge Island's All-Stars left the Little League World Series on a winning note.On Wednesday, a day after being eliminated from the 16-team tournament with a 5-0 loss to Rolando Paulino of The Bronx, Bainbridge players assembled for their last game in Williamsport - a hastily arranged scrimmage on a practice field against the Khovrino Little League team from Moscow, Russia.With the pressure off on a sunny, slightly breezy Northwest-style afternoon, the Bainbridge players cheerfully trash-talked among themselves. They wore each other's gloves. They played each other's positions. They played six outs per half inning.And they probably won, behind home runs by Coby Gibler, Peter Huisinga and Robby Stevenson, but it didn't really matter - for once, nobody was keeping score.For the first time since arriving in this central Pennsylvania city amid a crush of self-imposed expectations and national television cameras, the kids were loose-limbed, free-flowing, animated and laughing, the way many feel kids ought to be.This was a lot of fun, said Bainbridge's Michael Heald. We just relaxed and played baseball and had a good time.That, in the eyes of teammates, parents and coaches, constitutes the kind of win that can't be found in the scorebooks. But it's not to say that winding up as the United States' No. 5 team, among thousands of Little League squads from Hialeah to Humptulips, wasn't any kid's idea of a good time as well.Bainbridge finished its first-ever stint at the Series with a 1-2 mark, missing a final faint chance to advance from regular pool play to the single-elimination semifinal round of the world's best eight teams when Davenport, Iowa -- the team Bainbridge beat Saturday in Series-opening play -- fell to Apopka, Fla. in a later game on Tuesday. Iowa's loss prevented Bainbridge from advancing in a runs-allowed tiebreaker scenario.Bainbridge came into Tuesday's game - its first in 10,000-seat Lamade Stadium after playing the first two in newer but smaller Volunteer Stadium - looking tight and tentative against Rolando Paulino, a year-round select team that early had been anointed as the designated media darlings of the tournament. The Bronx had steamrollered Apopka and Davenport by a combined 12-4 score - including a perfect game against Apopka - and its players issued swaggering pronouncements of victory in their postgame press conferences.I came into this game really fired up, said Bainbridge's Nash Hensen. A lot of the New York players were talking as if they already had the game in the bag, and that made some of us angry.But Rolando Paulino is the favorite for a reason, and showed it right away against Bainbridge.Against starter Coby Gibler, Bainbridge's No. 2 pitcher, the team dubbed the Baby Bronx Bombers parlayed a walk, fielder's choice and two singles into a first-inning run.Shortstop Rudy Sharar narrowly averted a second run when he fielded a ground ball and made a throw to the catcher Austin Hurt for a bang-bang out to stop Bronx superstar pitcher and centerfielder Danny Almonte.Gibler was knocked out-literally and physically - in the second inning when leadoff Bronx hitter Francisco Pena drilled a line drive off the big guy's chest and wound up on second. A bunt attempt was dropped - Bainbridge's second error of the inning - setting up runners at first and third for Tommy Guzman, whose single gave Rolando Paulino a 2-0 lead. Pitcher Rolando Torres followed with a sacrifice fly for a 3-0 edge, and Almonte capped the outburst with a single to center to plate Guzman for a 4-0 score en route to an apparent rout.But Bainbridge, which hadn't suffered a blowout loss since the state tournament, proved to be made of tougher stuff. Two spectacular defensive plays by second baseman Peter Leslie, who also got the team's first hit in the third inning, averted further damage.And Hensen, who pitched a solid near-complete game against Iowa last on Saturday, shut down the potent Bronx attack, giving up just one unearned run over the final three innings.Bainbridge got plenty of bats on Bronx balls - Huisinga, Gibler and Dalton Gent also managed safeties - but the team couldn't string together two baserunners in any inning and the game ended on an acrobatic double play.We got here on D (defense), but didn't play very good D, Bainbridge Manager Don French said. They're a good team, but we had to play a lot better.For the series, Bainbridge batted .209 - with Gent, Gibler, Leslie and Adam Beck hitting .333 or better - and its pitchers had a combined earned-run average of 1.76 with six walks and a whopping 22 strikeouts in 17 innings of play.Rolando Paulino, which defeated Oceanside of San Diego 1-0 Thursday night, will meet Apopka in a 1:30 p.m. televised contest today to determine the U.S. champion. Japan and the Netherlands Antilles will play at 5 p.m. to decide which team will advance to Sunday's championship game.French put Bainbridge's performance - 18-4 since its first District 2 game in Chimacum in early July - in perspective by pointing out that the team is one of just three in the tournament that does not play, year-round, select-level, traveling tournament baseball.We're (one of) the only pure Little League teams in this tournament, he said. Some of these other teams have been together since they were 10 years old, playing 100 games or more a year. Twenty-two games is as long as we've been together, but on any given day, we can beat anybody.I've always said they had more talent than I could ever bring out. And the best thing I can say about that is that they never gave up.Many of the players, who arrived home late Thursday night, said that baseball will be a permanent part of their lives because of their World Series summer.I'd quit everything else just to play baseball all the time, and play it with this group of guys, Hensen said. We thought it was a stretch just to make it to regionals, but this is where we got to, and I'd like to play again someday in a World Series.Added Stevenson: And I think all the other guys feel the same way. "