It was a “what if” type of scenario that seemed so unlikely. For kids and parents alike, it was a dream of international neighbors only 11 miles apart geographically, sitting in opposite dugouts with the Little League World Series on the line. But it could have happened if a disciplined, opportunistic team from Japan had not spoiled the party.
As most of us know by now, an all-star squad of slick-fielding youngsters from Tokyo outlasted a flamboyant, autograph-signing club from Chula Vista, California, by a score of 6-4, thus taking the trophy back to the Orient from the second consecutive year. The victory overshadowed the fact that on the previous day, a bunch of unheralded kids from Tijuana, Mexico, gave the Japanese all they could handle, losing a heart-breaking, 3-2 decision in the international title game. Had the Mexicans somehow prevailed in that battle, they would have played Eastlake Little League from Chula Vista, the kings of the west, for all the marbles.
Chula Vista, you see, is a largely Hispanic community in south San Diego that is known as a hotbed for young baseball talent. Just a few years ago, this city’s Park View Little League won it all in Williamsport, with its stars like Luke Ramirez and Kiko Garcia now flying high in high school and on the verge of contemplating professional careers. Now, lets talk about Eastlake, where Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez owns a home. The Little League big shots there have close ties to Tijuana’s elite players, with some performing together on travel teams. That’s why the possibility of playing against each other on the big stage was so important.
While that never happened, both teams accomplished a lot in this prestigious event. And Tijuana’s Liga Municipal showed exceptional poise after losing to Tokyo, coming back to capture third place by defeating a very good New England team, 15-14.
“This was a big achievement for us,” noted Miguel Artalejo, one of six players to go yard on a team that launched 14 bombs overall. “Third place in the world makes us very happy.”
The best hitter for Tijuana was skinny second baseman Brandon Montes, who belted five big flies in six games. Unfortunately, he was the goat in the title game, failing to tag up and score from third on a deep drive to center field by Saul Favela. The score was tied 2-2 in the fifth inning at the time, which made the mental lapse even more critical. Tijuana manager Francisco Fimbres jumped up and down in in dismay as Montes stutter-stepped toward home and then returned to the bag.
“Brandon made a mistake, but they’re just kids,” replied Fimbres later. “I have a lot of respect for him.”
Reality set in the next day before the New England game. While the rest of the team was taking batting practice in the cages, Montes stood off to the side by himself. Then, he started to cry.
“We had to pick him up,” said Favela, one of the club’s leaders. “We knew as a team we had to bounce back, and Brandon had to bounce back.”
Montes did exactly that, hitting another home run as Tijuana held off New England by a one run margin.
The border city bombers had to actually play Japan twice, and were edged 5-2 in the first encounter that dropped them into the loser’s bracket. Tijuana’s ace, cool-headed southpaw Brandon Meza, was spent in an extra innings rematch against Panama, leaving the team’s number-two guy, Luis Manza, to start the championship game opposite Japan. Manza, who attends middle school in San Diego and pitches with dark glasses, is a hard thrower with a nasty slider, which is an unusual pitch for a Little Leaguer. Understandably, his hero is San Francisco Giants closer Sergio Romo, who owns a pretty good slider himself. So, Manza was speechless when Romo sent him a good luck video message in Spanish. That seemed to inspire the 5′-10″, 145-pound right-hander, who recorded seven strikeouts and gave up only one earned run in five innings of work. But Tijuana left six runners in scoring position during the second half of this game alone, letting the Japanese off the hook.
The Eastlake kids took Williamsport by storm, and they were treated like celebrities by the home folks. All the young ladies wanted photo shoots with Micah Pietila-Wiggs and Jake Espinosa, who sported shoulder-length hair that resembled the California surfer look. Nick Mora, an articulate, carefree youngster who enjoyed working the crowd, was also a fan favorite. It didn’t hurt, of course, that these young studs were among the best players on the field at any given moment. Grant Holman, a 6′-4″ string bean also stood out, and threw an extra innings no-hitter against Great Lakes in Eastlake’s opening game. Holman, who’s nickname is “man child,” is competitive on the field but a gentle giant off of it. Therefore, Grant’s dad, an Eastlake coach, did most of the talking for his son, whether the youngster liked it or not.
Holman pitched the title game against Japan’s best, Kazuki Ishida. But neither hurler was particularly sharp in the final day. Ishida, who has a reputation of sawing off batters, hit four players in four-plus innings, nailing Mora twice. After getting pegged in the leg the second time, Nick flung his bat and I thought he was going to charge the mound. That turned out to be a false alarm.
“I was just frustrated and it hurt,” explained Mora, who had three jacks in this tournament. “I was using my anger to fight the pain.”
Indeed, Ishida seemed extra diligent against Eastlake’s best hitters, grazing the jersey of Pietila-Wiggs in the first frame, and then beaning Giancarlo Cortez in the front of the helmet. It was sweet revenge when Cortez later lined a two run single to left to briefly put Eastlake in front, albeit against another pitcher, Keita Saito.
Holman labored through three innings, walking five and was lifted after throwing 82 pitches. Japan’s Shunpai Takagi was the hero in this game by hitting two crucial home runs, one off of Holman and the other against reliever Ricky Tibbett. All in all, it was an ugly game for both sides. But the Tokyo kids were more resilient in the final two frames, and deserved the win.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for a Chula Vista-Tijuana championship battle. Such a game would have been historic, and I have a common bond with several players on each team. But the learning experience here is that when the chips are down, doing all the little things, both mentally and physically, are paramount. And the youth teams from Japan are still ahead of the learning curve in that department.