HAMMOND | If you ever find Daniel Villarreal staring at you from across a poker table, cash in whatever chips you have remaining while you still have a chance.
For Villarreal can likely read you like a dime-store novel.
"He was tipping off his curve by the way he was holding the ball in his glove," Villarreal said of East Boise, Idaho, starter Layton Wagner, against whom he doubled and homered while driving in four runs during the Hammond Optimist Bulldogs' 11-1 slaughter-shortened pool-play victory Tuesday night.
The win earned the 'Dogs the National Division first-place bye for the single-elimination championship bracket, advancing them to today's semifinal round where they play at 8 p.m.
"You know something boys? We're in the Final Four!" Bulldogs manager Tom McDermott Jr. exclaimed during a post-game huddle.
"We've have an up and down season, but this team hasn't lost two games in a row all year," said McDermott, whose team rebounded from a 4-1 setback against Opp, Ala. the night before.
Villarreal suffered the loss on the mound against Opp after being touched for several unearned runs. He also struck out during one of two Hammond Optimist threats that didn't materialize.
Tuesday's clincher offered some redemption.
"We took some extra batting practice today before the game, and that seemed to help," Villarreal said.
As for poker hands, McDermott has a full house with a pair of aces. Winning pitcher Rigo Martinez was only taxed for four innings after striking out seven and scattering five hits. That leaves Martinez two innings for today's game if needed.
Hammond's likely starter will be a fresh Randall Perrin, who tripled in two runs against East Boise. On Saturday, Perrin was "lights out" while striking out 14 in a one-hit shutout against Kingsbridge, N.Y.
For Bronx-bred Knights, that was their only loss of the season.
McDermott also has a platoon of capable pinch-hitters at his disposal.
Tommy McDermott, Cameron Hatfield and Alex Flores all came off the bench and singled for the Bulldogs against East Boise, with McDermott's RBI single ending the game.
"What's great is that we played everyone and everyone contributed," the elder McDermott said.
CANDID COLOR COMMENTARY: Optimist manager McDermott will likely not trade his day job as Hammond mayor for a color commentary gig soon.
"I think my career in baseball radio broadcasting is pretty much over," McDermott said.
McDermott was giving color commentary during Sunday's broadcast of Crown Point's pool-play game against El Dorado, Ark., on Hammond radio station WJOB. During the game, he frequently revealed some of his coaching philosophies ("I love green lights on 3-0. I even love green lights on 3-1.") and he spoke of how he would manage differently in certain situations.
He was candid, but apparently a little too candid for some of the El Dorado fans listening on the Internet.
"They had a bad inning," McDermott said of El Dorado yielding nine runs in the third inning, many unearned. "I was trying to give an accurate description."
One play McDermott emoted about was when Crown Point scored two runs on a passed ball.
"I don't think I've ever seen that happen before," he said at the time.
El Dorado fans immediately began to state their grievances to the station and tournament officials.
"Looking back, I realized I was acting more as a coach rather than the mayor of the city that's hosting this event," McDermott said. "When I coach my team, when there is a problem, we recognize it and address it. But that's me being a coach again.
"But as mayor, I realize my comments were inappropriate."
McDermott said he apologized to the El Dorado coaches and to Cal Ripken officials.
"I made a mistake and I owned up to it," McDermott said, "but I still believe this thing has been blown out of proportion. I've been accused of saying things I did not say. ... You can listen to the replay."