PALO ALTO — Pitching gems require filthy stuff on the mound, sure. But it doesn’t hurt to have a mastermind behind the catcher’s mask.
San Mateo National rode into the winners’ bracket finals of the District 52 All-Star Majors Tournament with a 7-2 win over Palo Alto Thursday night at Mitchell Park, riding five-plus innings from left-handed starter Josh Jacobs.
“I think he pitched really well,” National catcher Franklin Kuo said. “He hit his spots … and I knew I could depend on him.”
But who knows where National would have been if not for the presence of Kuo? National’s catcher made several clutch defensive plays early on before providing the at-bat that turned around the complexion of the game.
With Palo Alto starting pitcher Daniel Kim opening with dominant stuff — setting down the first 11 batters he faced — the National defense needed to grind through the first two innings to stay within striking distance. And that grind was punctuated by the glovework of Kuo.
“He’s like a goalie back there,” San Mateo National manager Danny Luzzi said. “He blocks everything.”
But Kuo proved far more than a prototypical workhorse backstop. In the first inning, he made a clutch catch when, with the bases loaded and one out, first baseman Noah Greenspan threw home on groundball. The throw short-hopped Kuo, but the catcher picked it clean with a backhand. Jacobs went on to earn his first of seven strikeouts on the evening to escape the inning unscathed.
Then in the second, after Palo Alto scored a run on a sacrifice fly by Coco VanderHaar to go up 1-0, the back runner, Dexter Cleveringa, attempted to score on a wayward throw. But Greenspan once again connected with Kuo on a throw to the plate, with Kuo hanging in there on a contact play to get the out at home.
Kuo is revered as the best defensive catcher in San Mateo National Little League, according to Luzzi, who even gives the 12-year-old the freedom to call his own pitches.
Batting out of the No. 9 spot, though, he produced a suicide squeeze in the fifth to turn the tide for a National offensive that was scuffling for opportunities to that point.
Sean Kelly sparked the rally with National’s first official hit of the game, a one-out single to left. Tommy Kane followed with a booming double over the left-fielder’s head, but a brilliant relay throw from the left fielder VanderHaar allowed shortstop Luke Sousa to cut down Kelly at the plate with a bang-bang play and a gritty block and tag by catcher Henry Harding.
Kane advanced to third base on the throw home, though, which loomed large, as Kuo followed with a two-out bunt single to drive home Kane with the tying run.
It was a gutsy bunt attempt, considering there were two outs in the inning. But Kuo had called time before his at-bat to confer with Luzzi.
“He told me if it was there, I could do it,” Kuo said.
Kuo didn’t show bunt on the first pitch of the at-bat because the Palo Alto third baseman was playing in on the grass. Prior to the second pitch, however, the third baseman dropped back.
“That’s when I knew I could do it,” Kuo said.
On the following pitch, Kuo deadened a bunt nicely in front of the plate to catch the Palo Alto defense off guard as Kane sprinted across home plate with the tying run.
“I was really happy,” Kuo said. “I just tied the game for our team, and it gave our team something to battle back on.’
National didn’t stop there, loading the bases with back-to-back walks by Jacobs and Ali Formosa. Then Kuo scored on a wild pitch to the backstop, giving National a 2-1 lead.
It seemed like all the runs Jacobs would need, as the lefty was in the midst of setting down 11 batters in a row. He did get plenty of help from the right fielder Kane to extend that streak, though.
In the bottom of the fifth, Palo Alto batted two balls into right field, but Kane tracked them both down. To open the frame, Harding sent a floater into shallow right, but Kane covered the ground and laid out to make a diving play for the first out. Then with two outs, VanderHaar barreled a high drive to right-center, but Kane made a running catch deep in the power alley to end the inning.
“He tracks everything,” Luzzi said. “If the ball is in the air, he’s going to get to it.”
National broke the game open against the Palo Alto bullpen in the top of the sixth, sending nine batters to the plate amid a five-run rally, capped by a two-run single by Jacobs and an RBI double by Formosa.
Kim took the hard-luck loss, allowing two runs on three hits through five innings of work. The right-hander not only set down the first 11 batters he faced, he didn’t allow anything out of the infield during that stretch. He totaled two strikeouts, seven groundouts and five infield pop-outs in the game.
With the win, National advances to face the winner of the Alpine-San Mateo American matchup later Thursday evening.
“It’s huge staying in the winners’ bracket,” Luzzi said. “The momentum that you keep going. You stay hungry and aggressive the whole time.”