San Mateo National has given new meaning to the expression “comeback kids.”
With an all San Mateo showdown in the District 52 Little League All-Star 9-10s Tournament winners’ bracket finals, things were bound to get interesting. But no one could have anticipated the 10-inning marathon showdown Saturday morning at Red Morton Park.
After San Mateo American jumped out to a four-run lead in the fifth inning, San Mateo National rallied back with two in the bottom of the fifth and two more in the sixth to tie it. Then in the 10th, National broke through with a game-winning single from Milo Morelli for a 9-8 walk-off victory on Kiwanis Field.
“For 10-year-olds to be able to keep their composure for that many innings, and for us to be able to keep coming back, that’s really special,” San Mateo National manager Tommy Peyovich said.
What an amazing standoff it was, as the teams traded single runs for three extra innings. As per Little League rules, after one extra inning is played, the International Tie Breaker rule goes into effect, meaning a runner is positioned at second base to start each half inning.
In the eighth, American scored in the top of the inning with an RBI single by Landon King; National responded with an RBI single by Morelli. In the ninth, American scored on a sacrifice fly by Jesus Olivas; National answered back with an RBI groundout off the bat of Holden Benson.
“We’ve been playing some pressure games,” Peyovich said. “So, we’re testing our endurance and our mental toughness.”
Then in the top of the 10th, National got a shutdown inning courtesy of two clutch plays by catcher Kai Castro.
American had runners at first and third with one down, but Castro cut down the back runner at second on a steal attempt for the second out. Then with a runner at third, the National pitcher Benson threw a pitch to the backstop. Castro chased it down with the runner starting and stopping, but Castro didn’t pick it up cleanly, causing the runner to take off for home. Castro then gathered and ran from the backstop to the plate to beat the runner to the spot for the momentous third out.
“The energy was really big,” Morelli said. “Everyone was really happy, and ready to hit the ball and win it in the bottom of the 10th.”
That’s precisely what National did. Starting the inning with Will Trimborn at second base, Curtis Lee followed with a clean single to put runners at the corners. Morelli followed with his fourth hit of the game, a sinking liner to center field to score Trimborn with the game-winning run.
It marked the second straight walk-off win for National. Morelli was involved in the game-winning plays in both. In Wednesday’s winners’ bracket semifinal, National topped Half Moon Bay 1-0 on an RBI single by Dom McDonough. Morelli scored from second the play, sliding around the catcher’s tag to get to the plate.
“I thought they were good teams and they were tough games to win,” Morelli said.
It took a lot of doing for National to turn the tide Saturday. Everything seemed to be going American’s way through the first four-and-a-half innings.
American got on the board in the top of the first with back-to-back doubles by Cooper Hipps and RJ Church. Then starting pitcher Caleb Bandal set the tone in the bottom of the frame, getting through the first inning on five pitches. The right-hander threw just 13 pitches through the first two innings, 12 of them for strikes.
“He pounds that strike zone,” American manager Steve Church said. “I can move the mitt wherever and he’ll hit that target.”
American upped its lead to 4-0 in the top of the fifth. With the bases loaded, Julio Calderon produced a sacrifice fly to score Leo Rhein, and RJ Church scored from second base on an error. Bennett Simon followed with an RBI single.
But in the bottom of the fifth, National cut the lead in half. Lee scored on a double by Morelli, then he scored on a sacrifice fly by McDonough.
“I thought our momentum was going good,” Morelli said. “I thought we would be able to get some hits and come back.”
Come back they did, tying it in the bottom of the sixth. But only a safe call on a bang-bang play at second base kept the rally, and the game, alive.
Prior to the close play, Trimborn produced an RBI single to cut the deficit to 4-3. Then with runners at second and third and one out, Morelli hit a floating liner that looked bound for right field. The American second baseman Hipps, however, made a leaping grab for the second out of the inning.
“I thought it was going to be over my head,” Hipps said. “So, I backed up a little. Then I jumped and I was able to catch it.”
The play didn’t end there though. With the back runner still off second, Hipps raced to the bag in an attempt for a game-ending double play. Hipps slid feet first with the National runner, Castro, going in head first, and amid a cloud of dust a safe call prolonged the game.
McDonough then batted a ball in play, with an infield error allowing Trimborn to score the tying run, forcing extra innings.
“These kids have been there a lot,” Steve Church said. “There’s been a lot of long days out there battling … and I think it was just a long, tough battle. … We just couldn’t get that one last little play.”
The two San Mateo teams have plenty of history, much of which has seen them play on the same travel teams. In fact, Morelli is a hitting student at the Starting Line Up private baseball school, run by Hipps’ father Jeff.
“I tip my cap to San Mateo American, to their boys and how they play,” Peyovich said.
With the win, National advances to the 9-10s championship round starting Monday at Kiwanis Field at 5:30 p.m. National must be defeated twice to be denied the championship.