PALO ALTO — San Mateo National manager Dan Luzzi had one key motivator prior to Tuesday’s District 52 Little League All-Star Majors Tournament championship game:
“The road to Williamsport starts today.”
National heeded their skipper’s words by finishing off the first step toward the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania taking down San Carlos with a 3-1 victory to claim the District 52 banner Tuesday night at Mitchell Park.
The championship for National is its first since 1998.
Starting pitcher Josh Jacobs went the distance for National, but had to battle through a dicey final inning to finish it out. The left-hander faced a bases loaded, one-out jam but ultimately stranded all three base runners, coaxing a foul pop-up for the second out and grounder to shortstop Sean Kelly to end it.
“I just went to my pitcher because he did an excellent job,” Kelly said of the postgame celebration near the third-base bag. “That was mind-blowing. It’s a great feeling.”
San Carlos came oh so close to a comeback, though, which would have prolonged the championship series. National, having advanced through the winners’ bracket, needed only win Tuesday’s game to claim the title. San Carlos needed to win Tuesday to force a decisive showdown Wednesday, and came within two feet of doing so with one mighty swing by Zack Zirelli.
Clay Hinsdale led off the bottom of the sixth with a single then Tyler Webster reached on an infield error to put two on with one out. Zirelli then stepped to the plate and unloaded on the first pitch, sending a long fly to right field. Off the bat, it looked as though it might get over the wall for a walk-off homer.
“I just thought it was going to be gone and it was going to be game over,” Zirelli said.
Middlefield Ballpark was somehow able to hold it, though, as the ball bounced on the warning track to one-hop the right-field wall. With the runners moving up just one base each, Zirelli was ultimately held to a single to load the bases. Then the National defense stepped up to save the day.
Logan Mathias followed for San Carlos, who was enjoying one heck of a tournament to that point. The night previous, Mathias threw a four-inning complete game in a 13-1 mercy-rule win over San Mateo American to advance to the championship round. And he drove in San Carlos’ only run Tuesday with an RBI single to score Webster in the second inning to give his team a 1-0 lead.
In the sixth inning, Mathias worked the count full. Jacobs, the exacting southpaw, had been painting the black on the outside corner of the plate to San Carlos’ adept right-handed hitters all night. When Mathias lifted Jacobs’ 3-2 offering into foul territory behind first base, it looked to be an uncatchable ball. But first baseman Noah Greenspan got a good first step and showed good closing speed despite nearing the fence to make a snow-cone catch for the second out of the inning.
“That was a big league catch,” San Carlos manager Mike Zirelli said. “That changed the whole momentum.”
Then Jacobs bore down to earn his first complete game of the tournament, inducing a groundball to shortstop off the bat of Connor Schmalzle. The shortstop Kelly came up with the ball cleanly but, instead of throwing across the infield, he opted to throw to third for the force out.
“I didn’t think I had a chance to go [to first or second], so I decided to go 3,” Kelly said.
It was a gritty sixth from Jacobs, who also gave up a loud out to cleanup hitter Ian Josephson for the first out of the inning. After Hensley reached, Josephson hit a smash to left fielder, but right to Kurt Schaffer in left for the out.
“He smoked that ball,” Zack Zirelli said. “It was just right to him.”
Luzzi said he stayed with Jacobs in the sixth, despite San Carlos starting to square him up, because of the rhythm he had established to that point. Luzzi had a point, as Jacobs entered the inning having set down 12 of the last 13 batters he faced.
“He’s just in his zone,” Luzzi said. “He hits his spots. And the relationship he has with [catcher Franklin Kuo] is just priceless. It’s like they’re playing a video game out there.”
San Carlos starting pitcher Davis Minton began the night with quite a rhythm of his own. The right-hander, who was relied on heavily throughout the tournament, navigated a smooth first inning, striking out the first two hitters en route to setting down the side in order.
National, though, started knocking on the door, stranding the bases loaded in the second then leaving another runner in scoring position in the third. Then in the fourth, National broke through.
“I give a lot of credit to [National],” Mike Zirelli said. “They battled … and Davis left a couple pitches up and they took advantage of them. But he threw his heart out out there.”
Jay Leder opened the fourth with a bloop single, followed by a long double by Kelly to put runners at second and third. Then with one out, Tommy Kane singled to center to drive in Leder, with Kelly also scoring on the play on an error to give National a 2-1 lead. Jacobs added some insurance with a two-out single to left to score Kane.
Kane in center field added what was arguably the defensive gem of the tournament in the bottom of the fifth. With one out, Minton shot a sinking liner into the right-center gap. Kane, though, got a wicked first step and went completely airborne with a headlong dive to snag it in midair.
“I just went to where it was going to be,” Kane said. “I knew I would have to dive and I just sprinted and laid out.”
For San Carlos, the last District 52 Majors championship came in 2003 under the San Carlos National banner. After getting knocked into the elimination bracket it its second game, the team won five straight games to advance to the championship round, posting a 6-2 record in the tournament.
“We had a special group,” Mike Zirelli said. “And it was a great run.”
San Mateo National now advances to the Section 3 tournament. The four-team, double-elimination tournament begins Saturday, July 13. The tourney will be hosted by District 57 in the Alameda County and Contra Costa County area. Sites are yet to be determined. National opens play against the District 45 champion July 13 at 11 a.m.