Maybe the Belmont Sports Complex ought to think about bringing in the fences.
As part of the agreement to host the Babe Ruth Northern California State Tournament, the Belmont Sports Complex installed temporary outfield fences on the north baseball diamond. And with host Bel-Mateo’s championship hopes on the line Thursday night, two of their best power hitters took aim with the bases loaded, looking to invigorate a scuffling offense.
Both Jackson Wood and Jack Andrews sent towering fly balls into the night, but both were caught, in the penultimate inning of the Bel-Mateo Babe Ruth All-Stars’ doubleheader sweep at the hands of Palo Alto in the championship-round finale. Palo Alto — with wins of 2-1 and 7-1 — claimed the Northern California title.
“These are standard distances,” Bel-Mateo manager Steve Vega said of the outfield fences, which measure 315 feet down the left-field line, and 305 feet down right. “I wouldn’t bring them in, no.”
Vega wasn’t up for indulging a sense of humor after two excruciating loses. And who could blame him?
A coach in the Bel-Mateo leagues for the past 30 years, approximately half of which he has served as an All-Star coach in some capacity, Vega watched his team advance through the winners’ bracket of the eight-team, double-elimination tournament that started Saturday, July 6.
After having beaten Palo Alto earlier in the tournament, however, Bel-Mateo faltered in the championship round, producing just five cumulative hits through Thursday’s two loses, including a stretch of nine innings without producing a hit.
“You take a negative and put it into a positive,” Vega said of his postgame speech. “You try to tell them they did their best … and try to have it on a positive note. There were six teams that didn’t make it here, and we did.”
There is a silver lining, though, as the top two teams from the tournament advance to the Pacific Southwest Regional Tournament, starting Monday, July 22 in Taft. Bel-Mateo had already punched its ticket to the next round.
Still, it was a disheartening Northern California finale that started with much promise. Bel-Mateo sent right-hander Aaron Li to the mound in Game 1, who was coming off a combined no-hitter against Napa earlier in the tournament. In the no-no to open the tourney, Li worked five perfect innings before being lifted after walking the leadoff batter in the sixth. Wood entered to set down the next three batters in order to seal the 10-0, mercy-rule win.
“They were really impressed and they were excited,” Vega said of Bel-Mateo’s reaction to the no-hitter. “I was impressed. As his coach, I was impressed.”
Li didn’t have to worry about any no-hit fanfare Thursday as he surrendered a hit to the first batter he faced in the doubleheader opener, a leadoff single by Palo Alto’s Colin Thibault. While Thibault went 3 for 3 in the game, only one of those hits hurt Li, an RBI knock in the second inning. Otherwise, Li buckled down to allow just two runs on seven hits, setting down nine in a row at one point.
Bel-Mateo jumped out front quickly as Brady Greene’s RBI double staked Li to a 1-0 lead in the first inning. After Thibault’s RBI single tied it in second inning, the score remained deadlocked into the sixth.
Palo Alto broke through in its final at-bat, though. Josh Donaker was hit by a pitch to start the frame, and cleanup hitter Ben Gladstone singled to put runners at first and second with no outs. Li retired the next two batters, but pinch-hitter Garrett Miller produced a clutch two-out single to score Donaker with the go-ahead run.
Palo Alto starting pitcher Diego Clarke earned the win, allowing just one run on one hit through six innings. Thibault entered in the seventh to pick up the save.
Thibault took that momentum right into the doubleheader nightcap as the Game 2 starter, working five-plus innings. Palo Alto scored three runs in the first — with an RBI single by De’aveon Roberts and a two-run single by Rem Allen — and scored three more in the fifth with another RBI single by Allen, a sacrifice fly by Miller and a bases-loaded walk to Clarke.
Thibault started the sixth inning Bel-Mateo loaded the bases with a single by Sean McLoughlin and back-to-back walks by Stefanos Rosenbaum and Carosn Vance. Palo Alto then went to its bullpen, turning to J.P Aguilar, who worked out of the jam to strand all three inherited base runners.
After a pop-up for the first out of the inning, Wood stepped up and the left-handed cleanup hitter set a towering fly ball to deep right. Roberts hauled in the second out of the inning and, thanks to a base-running miscue, the runner at third failed to tag up and score. Andrews followed with a deep fly to left, but the Palo Alto left fielder Allen chased it down on the run to retire the side.
The Bel-Mateo pitchers Greene and Cole Sullivan combined to walk nine and hit three batters in the game.
“At the end of the day, they’re all boys still,” Vega said. “They’re kids.”
Thibault was named the tournament Most Valuable Player. He hit .350 (7 for 20) with four RBIs at the plate, and pitched 13 1/3 innings while allowing just one earned run.