CASTRO VALLEY — The serenity surrounding the main baseball diamond at Five Canyons Park is something to behold.
Throughout the Northern California Little League Majors State All-Star Tournament, though, all eyes were fixed on the diamond at the heart of those sweeping scenic views. The roister of the region’s seven best Little League teams, and their legions of devoted fans — parents, siblings, extended family and more — fell silent Sunday on what San Mateo National hoped would be the final day of the tourney.
After becoming the first team in San Mateo history to reach the Northern California Little League championship round, National bowed out Saturday in a heart-wrenching 6-3 to Maidu-Roseville, who needed be defeated twice. In wrapping up the championship Saturday, Maidu advances to the West Region tournament Aug. 4-10 in San Bernardino.
“You just remember the plays you made over a month and a half, and not that last inning,” National manager Dan Luzzi said.
It was a tumultuous final inning for National. Leading 3-0 going into the sixth and final frame, the Nats were stunned as Maidu clubbed two three-run home runs, one to tie it and another to take the lead.
After National starting pitcher Noah Greenspan dominated through five shutout inning, he departed after maxing out his pitch count with his 85th pitch at the end of the fifth. Then, against the National bullpen, Maidu struck. With two on and one out, Jace Kim barreled up a 1-2 pitch for a soaring three-run blast to tie it. After a walk and a base hit, KC Tibbits provided the go-ahead shot, driving an 0-2 fastball over the center-field wall.
It was National’s second loss in the tournament to Maidu. The Nats also dropped the tournament opener to the boys from Roseville, holding a 3-0 lead in that one as well, only to see Maidu tie it in the fourth before rallying for seven in the fifth for a 10-5 win.
After National jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the third inning Saturday, Luzzi was vigilant in reminding his players what the Maidu offense was capable of.
“I was just constantly reminding them to stay focused … and I thought we did,” Luzzi said. “And we just missed on two pitches.”
The Nats jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the third inning with a two-out rally against Maidu starting pitcher Ben Kreizenbeck. Josh Jacobs drew a two-out walk. Then Alejandro Formosa scorched a liner just over the leaping glove of the second baseman that shot up the right-center gap for an RBI double.
“We were happy we took a lead,” Formosa said. “But we knew we had to hold it and focus because they could come back at any time.”
That didn’t seem likely against Greenspan, who only got better as the game wore on. The big right-hander had one hiccup along the way, pitching through a bases-loaded jam in the first inning — he allowed a single down the right-field line to Chase Bentley before walking two — but ended the frame with a strikeout of Kim. He went on to strike out seven on the day.
But the first inning came back to haunt Greenspan, who pitched carefully the first time through the heart of Maidu’s mighty batting order. His pitch count after one inning was at 29, meaning he’d likely reach the limit of 85 before the sixth inning.
“In that first inning, I pitched a lot of pitches,” Greenspan said. “That got that one hit down the right-field line, but I knew I didn’t have to pitch around them that much. … I just tried to go after them a lot more.”
Greenspan got more efficient and stronger, and said he had plenty left in the tank as he walked off the mound in the fifth.
“Yeah, I feel like they were a really good team, so I had to pitch strategically,” Greenspan said. “I wish there was a different rule and I had more pitches.”
Also National’s hottest hitter — through seven games, he hit .555 (10 for 18) with four home runs and 13 RBIs in the tournament — Greenspan added two valuable insurance runs in the bottom of the fifth, following a single by Jacobs with a soaring two-run homer to left-center to give the Nats a 3-0 lead.
In the sixth, though, came the heartbreaking sight of two different National pitchers giving up monumental homers in two-strike counts.
Left-hander Tommy Kane yielded the game-tying shot, slamming his mitt against his leg in frustration as Kim’s homer took flight. Then catcher Franklin Kuo fired his helmet down in disgust when Tibbits connected with right-hander Kurt Schaffer’s high fastball for what proved to be the game-winner.
National shortstop Sean Kelly went 2 for 3, but the one out he made was the final out of the day, grounding the relief pitcher Bentley’s offering to shortstop Beau Ogles.
It wasn’t the dream ending for National, but in winning the District 52 and Section 3 championships, the team earned the chance to prove its mettle on the Nor Cal stage.
The Nats certainly did that. And while they may not realize now, someday they’ll embrace that they not only advanced further than any team from San Mateo ever had, but also that the explosive finish to Saturday’s championship round had as much to do with their talent and dedication on the diamond — that playing the game the right way can produce sure high quality baseball — as did Maidu’s.
“Just the run that they had, each city they went to,” Luzzi said of what the summer Little League All-Star season has meant to the team, “… and we beat every team except the one that is on ESPN.”