DANVILLE — Pitching and defense wins championships. Through seven straight wins this summer, and a District 52 championship already in hand, the San Mateo National Majors All-Stars have been getting plenty of both.
National Little League continued its unbeaten run, opening the Section 3 Majors All-Star this weekend with nine straight shutout innings in posting back-to-back wins at beautiful Osage Park. With victories of 11-0 over Castro Valley in Saturday’s opener, and 2-1 over Danville on Sunday, National now advances to Tuesday’s Section 3 championship round.
Josh Jacobs and Riley Lim combined on Saturday’s five-inning, mercy-rule shutout. Then Sunday’s starting pitcher Tommy Kane and reliever Noah Greenspan combined to hold Danville scoreless through the first four innings.
“We are preaching defense and pitching,” National manager Dan Luzzi said. “So, as long as we do those two things, we should win. And the pitching has been phenomenal.”
And the defense had two magic moments Sunday to contribute to the scoreless streak, recording two outs at home plate. And the first one, especially, was indicative of everything is going the Nats’ way these days.
In the first inning, Danville started a two-out rally with back-to-back singles by Kaleb Pleis and Jason Doyle to put runners at first and second. Two pitches later, National catcher Franklin Kuo threw behind Pleis at second, but shortstop Sean Kelly didn’t cover the base and the throw sailed into center field. Pleis moved to third easily, but as the back runner attempted to advance to second, Jacobs in center field threw to the bag — literally.
With each of National’s middle infielders starting toward the outfield grass to act as the cutoff man, second base remained unmanned. But Jacobs’ throw hit the bag and spun to a stop just to the outfield side of the base, allowing Kelly to chase it down. Pleis broke for the plate but Kelly’s throw was right on the money for Kuo to slap a tag down to notch the bang-bang out call and retire the side.
For Kelly, it was: “’Alright, time to make a play,’ and he threw home,” Luzzi said. “He flushed it (the mistake of not covering the bag) super fast.”
Greenspan and Kuo connected for a similar recovery play in the fourth to record another out at home. National jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the third, but Danville got a rally for free in the fourth when Pleis drew a leadoff walk — the final batter of the day faced by Kane — then moved to second base on a passed ball, and advanced to third on a deep fly out to right field by Dylan Deitsch.
With Greenspan on in relief, the big right-hander uncorked a pitch to the backstop, seeing Pleis again break for the plate. But Kuo refused to give up on the play, quickly chasing down the would-be wild pitch and throwing to the plate for Greenspan, who covered the plate in stride to apply a quick tag before extended his foot to the plate.
It was an interesting way to keep an inherited runner from scoring, but effective nonetheless.
“A little nervous (entering the game) with a runner on,” Greenspan said, “… but I was ready.”
Greenspan went on to work three innings to earn the save. Danville did break up the shutout in the fifth. Deitsch led off with a double then later scored on an RBI groundout by Ryan Starkey. TJ Adlman followed with an infield single, but Greenspan retired the last four batters he faced to end it, totaling three strikeouts and four groundouts.
Kane worked three-plus innings, allowing three hits while walking one and striking out two to earn the win.
The contrast between the crafty left-hander Kane and the fireballer Greenspan was an essential part of the strategy.
“You start off with the funk and you finish with the speed,” Luzzi said.
“I thought [Kane] was better than me today,” Greenspan said. “Just from the first pitch, I could see his curveball was really moving. … And he was really efficient today.”
The pitching tandem also accounted for both of National’s runs.
With two outs in the top of the third, Greenspan socked a double to left. Then Kane, as he did in his first plate appearance, got hit by a pitch. Jay Leder followed with the biggest at-bat of the game, lining an RBI single to center to score Greenspan.
“Jay just ripped that ball and I just knew I could score on that,” Greenspan said.
As the throw home got away from Danville’s catcher, Kane advanced to third and looked to round the bag, but collided with the third baseman as he did. Kane said he wasn’t sure if he was going to attempt to score.
“I was just trying to make up my mind,” Kane said.
After running into the third baseman, Kane stopped at third, but defensive obstruction was called and Kane was awarded home plate on the play, giving National a 2-0 lead.
Greenspan paced all hitters with a 2-for-3 day. Greenspan, Ali Formosa and Soren Blanchard lead National with three hits apiece in the tournament.
Luzzi was strategic in managing his team’s pitch counts. Saturday, each Jacobs and Lin totaled less than 35 pitches, making them available in the event National needed play an elimination game Monday. Both pitchers will, of course, be available for Tuesday’s championship round.
Advancing through the winners’ bracket, National — needing just one win to claim the Section 3 championship — need be defeated twice in the championship round to be eliminated. The Nats will play the winner of Monday’s elimination game between Danville and Castro Valley. Each Kane and Greenspan threw less than 50 pitches Sunday, making them both available to pitch Wednesday in the event of the “what-if” game.