FREMONT — It was the biggest game of Hugo Guzman Jr.’s life.
None of the San Mateo American 10-11-year-old All-Stars had ever played games the magnitude of this week’s Section 3 baseball tournament. And Guzman, more than anyone else, shouldered the pressure of Wednesday’s winner-take-all championship showdown with Granada-Livermore, having suffered the pitching loss in a short outing to the same Granada team earlier in the tournament.
But the one identifier American manager Jason Gordon uses to describe Guzman, above all else, is big-game pitcher. And Guzman delivered big time Wednesday night at Marshall Park, leading his American squad to a 10-0 mercy-rule win that ended in a walk-off celebration with the Section 3 championship banner.
“This was probably my biggest,” Guzman said of the importance of the game. “I’ve never been to section, or anywhere.”
The slight-of-stature, giant-of-heart Guzman was on point from the outset, allowing just one Granada base-runner to reach scoring position all night. Then, as American rallied for five runs in the bottom of the fifth to invoke the mercy rule, it was Guzman who served as the offensive hero as well.
“I’m just happy for him,” Gordon said. “If anyone deserved to get the game-winning hit, it’s him. He’s out big-game pitcher … but to have him go up there and hit a stripe, it was good to see.”
The left-handed leadoff batter was 3 for 4 on the game, finishing the tourney with a line-drive single down the left-field line to score Oscar Osuna with the 10th and final run of the night.
“At first I thought it was foul,” Guzman said. “Then the umpire called it fair and I started celebrating.”
Granada player injured in third
Despite the lopsided final score, the early innings were tenuous, as Granada and American traded scoreless innings into the third. American finally broke through in the bottom of the third inning, sending nine batters to the plate amid a five-run rally. But during the inning, a frightening play transpired when Granada third baseman Taelin Alberts got struck in the head with a thrown ball, forcing him to leave the game.
“The shortstop threw it to third,” Granada manager Zeke Palma said, “and our third baseman wasn’t expecting the baseball, and it hit him in the ear.”
Alberts walked off the field under his own power, and in departing Marshall Park with the game still in progress for precautionary reasons, he also walked under his own power.
“He walked off,” Palma said. “He’s fine.”
Jason Gordon, who was coaching third base at the time, was standing directly behind Alberts, who, it just so happens, Gordon coached earlier this year with his Neptune Beach spring travel team.
It was a strange play, with two different rundowns transpiring at once. First, an American runner got in a rundown between second and third. But then, the forward runner at third base took off for home. The Granada shortstop had the ball near second base and, when the forward runner took off for the plate, Alberts and Gordon both looked toward the plate, expecting the throw to go there. But, instead, the throw went to third.
“I didn’t see it at all,” Gordon said. “I was standing behind him. I’m the third-base coach … and me and Taelin both turned our heads to look at home plate.”
Gordon said he heard a sound, thinking it was the ball hitting a rail on the fence behind him. It wasn’t until after he waved the back-runner home — with both base runners scoring on the play — that he turned and saw Alberts laying on the ground.
“Then you get that sickening feeling,” Jason Gordon said.
A few fans accused San Mateo American of poor sportsmanship, though Granada’s manager shot down that accusation. The umpires conferred after the play to decide whether or not to have the back runner return to third base but ruled the run would have scored regardless of the injury.
“It was called correctly,” Palma said. “I have no problem with that call at all. … There was nothing San Mateo did wrong. We would have done the same thing.”
Setting the tone
With the way Guzman was pitching, one run may very well have been enough to win the game. The right-hander was dazzling, striking out three and inducing six groundouts. And his defense was equally as dazzling behind him.
Second baseman Xavier Ruiz set the tone in the first inning, robbing Alberts of a single. Granada’s No. 2 hitter sent a looper into shallow center, but Ruiz got a good first step and chased it down with a high backhand, making a difficult play look fairly routine.
“I love making those plays because I practice them all the time,” Ruiz said.
Guzman faced his toughest challenge in the top of the third. With the game still deadlocked in a scoreless tie, Granada got a one-out single from Joey Marasco and a two-out walk from Tyler Palma, bringing up their cleanup hitter. Guzman was nails in the matchup though. After a first-pitch ball, the right hander owned the inside half of the plate, busting it in for three straight swing-through strikes to escape the jam.
“I was just trying to get him out,” Guzman said. “I didn’t want him to get a rip and score those two runs.”
Ruiz said the performance was vintage Guzman. The two have played together since they were 7, with Ruiz playing second base consistently behind Guzman for four years.
“When he’s on, he’s on,” Ruiz said.
American breaks through
The American offense responded by getting the line moving in the bottom of the inning. No. 9 batter Ian Chang started the frame with a single to center. Chang moved to second on a passed ball, and Guzman followed with a bunt single to put runners at the corners. Ruiz then hit a grounder to shortstop that saw the throw go home, and it appeared to beat Chang, but the throw was bobbled, allowing Chang to slide in safely for the first run of the game.
No. 3 hitter Chase Gordon then stepped to the plate with runners at second and third and hit the grounder that led to Alberts getting hit in the head, and Guzman and Ruiz scoring on the play. After a lengthy delay, Granada starting pitcher Tyler Palma bounced back to strike out American cleanup hitter Sean Tam. But Donovan Friedland reached on a two-out error, Ilonzo Montorio singled, and both runners scored when Oscar Osuna reached on an infield error, giving American a 5-0 lead.
“Our defense didn’t play how we normally play,” Zeke Palma said. “We usually play a lot better. We didn’t make the routine plays today.”
Guzman allowed a leadoff single to Seth Sanchez to start the fourth, but it was the last ball he’d let out of the infield. The right-hander rebounded to set down the last six batters he faced.
Then in the bottom of the fifth, American rallied to realize its destiny as Section 3 champs.
Chase Gordon got hit by a pitch to lead off the inning. Tam followed with a single and Friedland walked to load the bases. Montorio then rifled an RBI single to right and Osuna followed with a two-run single, moving Montorio to third.
Chang nearly ended the game with a towering fly ball to deep center, but the Granada center fielder Sanchez tracked it down to limit American to one run on the sacrifice fly, keeping the score at 9-0. But Guzman stepped up, shot a single down the left-field line, and for his efforts, got mobbed in the middle of the infield in the championship celebration.
With the win, American advances to the Northern California 10-11s Little League Baseball Tournament, starting Saturday at the Mike Logan Complex at 568 Camden Ave. in San Jose. American opens play in the seven-team, double-elimination tournament Saturday at 11 a.m.