CASTRO VALLEY — What an emotional evening in the Northern California Little League Majors State All-Star Tournament — with said emotions running the gamut of highs and lows.
On one side was San Mateo National celebrating its third straight victory, a gutsy 6-3 win Thursday evening at Five Canyons Park over Novato, to advance to the Nor Cal elimination bracket finals. On the other side, a rightfully upset Novato team left with a somber elimination after getting cheesed by the umpires at the most critical moment.
Trailing by three runs in the sixth and final inning, Novato was on the verge of bringing the tying run to the plate. Joseph Cipollina drew a leadoff walk. Then, on a 3-2 pitch, the following batter took a ball outside and ran to first base. San Mateo National, however, appealed to the home plate umpire, claiming it was only ball three — it wasn’t — and after the umpires conferred, the batter was sent back to the batter’s box with a 3-2 count.
“It was a tense moment where, as a coach, I went with what the umpires called and not with what I saw,” San Mateo National manager Dan Luzzi said.
Luzzi said what he saw was National catcher Franklin Kuo react in disgust after the ball call, and inferred from it that Kuo probably thought it was ball four. On the following pitch, the Novato batter struck out. Soon thereafter, Novato fans were offering up video replays of the at-bat from their cellphones showing it was in fact ball four. Unfortunately for Novato, there is no instant replay rule in Little League baseball.
“All I know is we had four ball, and [the umpires] said we had three,” Novato manager Scott Davis said. “And that’s all there was.”
Davis was quite a sport. His response was to the second time the question was asked about the sixth-inning debacle. His first answer gave all the credit for the win to San Mateo National.
“The difference in the game was their center fielder, and their infield made every play,” Davis said. “And when you make those plays, you’re going to win.”
Yes, their center fielder — Tommy Kane — who made perhaps one of the greatest defensive plays you’re ever going to see in a Little League game.
With National right-hander Jay Leder looking to close out his third inning of relief, Novato had one on with two outs when cleanup hitter Tyler Keehn hit a rocket up the left-center gap.
It was a tough sky, with National left fielder Jordan Kiaaina looking right into the sun. Kane, though, tracked it all the way, sprinting into the gap and making an all-out dive, fully extending his arm while as airborne as a superhero to make the grab as smooth as silk before absolutely tackling the outfield turf.
“I couldn’t catch it because it was in the sun,” Kiaaina said. “But Tommy is super athletic, so I said: ‘He’s going to catch it.’”
It isn’t the first web gem Kane has turned in this summer. But it was certainly the most electrifying. Not that you’d know it by the manner in which he jogged back to the dugout, reacting as though it was a routine play.
“He’s such a stone-faced killer,” Luzzi said. “He just plays hard. He just comes in and does his job … and it was a huge moment of the game, too.”
National earned that huge moment with their ability to answer back on offense. With Novato playing as the away team, National responded to three consecutive one-run deficits.
Novato struck for a run in the first; National answered with a pair of doubles, first by leadoff man Josh Jacobs followed by an RBI double by Noah Greenspan to tie it 1-1.
In the second the bottom of the Novato order produced another run to go up 2-1; National’s Sean Kelly promptly doubled in the bottom of the frame, moved to third on a wild pitch then scored on a sacrifice fly by Kiaaina.
In the third, Novato’s Sean McGrath launched a solo home run to left; Jacobs fired right back with an opposite-field solo blast in the bottom of the frame, tying it at 3.
“[The thought] was just to get that run back,” Jacobs said, “because we all knew there was a lot of game left. So, we knew we could come back.”
Amid the fireworks, Jacobs was amassing a 3-for-3 night, falling a triple shy of the cycle. And that third-inning home run was his first, not just of the All-Star season, but the first time he’s ever left the yard in his life.
“I thought [the center fielder] was going to catch it,” Jacobs said. “Then I peeked halfway down to first base and it was over the fence. … I was very excited.”
That excitement was brewing for two innings after his first-inning double, a shot off the left-center wall that had his teammates teasing him to hit the weight room, according to Luzzi.
“Then the next time he gets one (a home run),” Luzzi said. “And then his smile coming around the bases, when you see that — that’s why I do what I do.”
Kane worked two innings as National’s starting pitcher. The crafty lefty then gave way to Leder, who used a heavy fastball to navigate three innings, allowing one run on two hits and a walk while striking out four to earn the win.
“[Leder] was our power guy,” Luzzi said, who likes to pair finesse guys with power arms, a one-two punch that has worked all summer. “I wanted to go with a strategy of funky and then speed again.”
National took its first lead in the fourth, sending eight batters to the plate amid a three-run rally. After a walk to Kurt Schaffer, Kuo doubled to put runners at second and third. Jacobs then produced the go-ahead knock with an RBI single to center to score the pinch-runner Kiaaina. After a walk to Alejandro Formosa, Greenspan delivered a two-run single for insurance.
With the win, National advances to the elimination bracket finals to face Sunnyvale. First pitch Friday at Five Canyons Park is scheduled for 6 p.m. The winner advances to the Nor Cal Majors championship round, starting Saturday morning.