For a debut game that featured a little of everything, the deciding play was most fitting.
Homer's Heath Johnson laid down a perfect suicide squeeze to break a tie in the top of the seventh inning, and the Mariners spoiled host Kenai Central's baseball debut in the Northern Lights Conference with a 9-7 win at Kenai Little League fields Wednesday night.
The play came after the Mariners attempted the same thing in the sixth -- unsuccessfully.
"We are aggressive on the bases and that's how we want to play," Homer coach Larry Kuhns said. "That's kind of our nature, and it worked out."
With runners on second and third and nobody out in the top half of the final inning, Johnson bunted the ball between first base and the pitcher's mound as Cody Shealy charged home from third base. Kenai Central pitcher AJ Hull couldn't corral the ball in time, and Shealy scored easily. The Mariners tacked on two more runs and Asa Stage closed the door in the bottom of the seventh.
Homer built a 5-0 lead through four innings thanks to a four-run fourth against reliever Ethan Oliver, who replaced starter Dylan Sterling after three innings.
Oliver walked the first two batters he faced, then threw the ball into center field on a pickoff attempt at second base. Johnson doubled to deep center a few pitches later, making it 2-0. A wild pitch scored two more runs for Homer before Dillon Morrison drove in another run with a single to left field off the glove of Hull at shortstop.
The Kardinals clawed back with three runs in the fourth and fifth, taking a 6-5 lead. Tauren Miller and Luke Short had RBI singles in the fourth, and Miles Jones had the go-ahead hit in the fifth, driving home two runs with a liner up the middle for a 6-5 lead.
Hull relieved Oliver in the top of the sixth and allowed a run on a bloop single to right off the bat of Stage.
That set the stage for Johnson's squeeze play.
"I thought we played well. The couple times we hurt ourselves, we got down on ourselves, trying to do too much," Kenai coach John Kennedy said. "We held our heads a little and I had to say, 'Hey, the game isn't over.'"
The Kards used three pitchers and each showed positive signs, while also struggling at times. Oliver needed 40 pitches to get through the fourth. Sterling hit two batters, but also threw 12-of-16 first-pitch strikes. Hull, who homered to left in the bottom of the seventh, took the loss, though he allowed just two hits beyond the infield.
"This is the first time really throwing off the mound this year, so it's different," Kennedy said. "I'm excited by what we have because there's some talent here. I just gotta get their heads screwed on right and once that happens, I'm telling you, it's gonna be fun to watch."
Kevin Rowe took a no-hitter into the fourth for Homer before Stage took over, striking out five over 3 2-3 innings.
The Kards host Palmer at 3 p.m. Saturday. Kennedy said he's excited to see how the squad reacts following the debut.
"We learned a little bit today and hopefully they'll build on it. I think they know they need to do a few things," Kennedy said. "I'm excited because I know where I'm taking them and where we're going to go. The team you see today is not the team you will see in two weeks -- I'm hoping. We have nowhere to go but up."
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