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July 12, 2011 > MSJ takes Juniors crown, Niles wins Majors

MSJ takes Juniors crown, Niles wins Majors

By Gary van den Heuvel

A gutsier call couldn't have been made at a more critical moment. The final game of the District 14 Little League Junior All Stars tournament (July 9), game tied 5-5, bottom of the eighth inning, winning run at third, one out. Mission San Jose Little League (MSJLL) manager Michael Chiang had the confidence in his batter to make the call.

The risk-reward factor in this decision was monumental, but in this case, Chiang's confidence was rewarded when Jacob Walter laid down a perfect suicide squeeze. At the moment Walter's bat hit ball, Mission's Jason Kinner was motoring down the line, halfway between third and home.

By the time Niles-Centerville Little League (NCLL) relief pitcher Zach Strand gloved the ball, Kinner was already across the plate, thrusting the final dagger into the heart of a game Niles squad. As Kinner's jubilant teammates mobbed him, the Niles-Centerville players trudged dejectedly off the field, sensing they'd let this game, and with it, their collective season, slip away.

Up to that point, it had been Mission San Jose who'd done most of the squandering. After Niles took a 2-0 lead in the third inning, Mission awoke with four runs in the bottom of the fourth. Spoorthy Vemula drove in two with a single, Walter brought another run home with an infield hit, and Jagvir Tamber's line shot off the third baseman scored another run.

MSJ added a run in the fifth on Kinner's RBI single, and with two innings remaining, Mission led 5-2 and had appeared to have Niles-Centerville solved. But Niles would not go down quietly; in the sixth frame, David Williams singled, Gabe Papadopolous walked, and after the next two batters were retired, Tony Chavez doubled both base runners home.

Things got real tense in the seventh inning, with Mission clinging to a one-run lead. Two infield errors put Niles runners on first and third base. Strand singled home Nick Lawrence to tie it at 5-5, and a balk call sent both runners to second and third. With no outs, manager Chiang inserted Austin King as his new pitcher. King struck out his first batter, and the second out came when shortstop Walter fielded a grounder by Jacob Hoard and threw out John Johonnet at the plate. Walter followed that with the defensive play of the game: he dove deep into the hole on a sharply hit grounder between third and short and made an improbable stop. He knew his only play was to second, so while on his knees, Walter spun and fired a strike to second to force the sliding Hoard. Walter's amazed teammates practically carried him off the field.

With that play, the momentum seemed to swing back to Mission, who rather than surrender to the frustration of seeing their three-run lead vanish, were emotionally buoyed by Walter's defensive gem. However, they couldn't play off that emotion in the seventh, going down 1-2-3 and sending the game into extra innings. In the eighth, Kinner got the winning rally started with a single before stealing second and advancing to third on a balk, setting the table for Walter's walk-off suicide squeeze.

Mission San Jose had come into the final as an underdog; they'd already tangled with Niles-Centerville before, in the tournament's second round on June 27 at Warm Springs Elementary School. The game was a sloppily-played affair which Niles won 16-13, dropping Mission into the elimination bracket (the tournament being a double-elimination format). MSJ got their act together in wins over Fremont American (a 2-1 pitchers duel) and Centerville American (a 13-9 slugfest).

Niles-Centerville was well rested for the final - they hadn't played in a week, had already beaten MSJ, and knew that they would have to be beaten twice in order to lose, whereas for Mission, each game was a do-or-die. Chiang tabbed Sam Lowry to start the July 8 game at Gomes Elementary School, and Lowry delivered one of the clutch pitching performances of the season.

After allowing a run in an error-plagued first inning, Lowry was lights-out the rest of the way. Mission pecked and chipped for runs, scoring one each in the third, fourth, sixth and seventh innings. Lowry was ready to go the complete game but had reached his pitch limit and was replaced by Jagvir Tambir with two outs in the seventh inning. Niles didn't produce any late inning excitement on this evening, and Tambir nailed down the 4-1 win.

MSJLL's Junior All-Star team will represent District 14 in Little League's California Section 3 Junior All-Star Tournament, hosted by California District 67. Their first game will be in Tracy on Saturday, July 16, at 11 a.m.

MSJLL nearly made it a weekend sweep, as Mission San Jose clashed with (guess who) Niles-Centerville in the final of the Majors All-Star tournament, also held at Gomes Elementary (July 9). Like their Junior counterparts, both teams had already clashed in the tourney, and it was Niles' 8-3 win (July 5) that sent them to the final and Mission to the elimination bracket. MSJ's potent bats reawakened in their 13-5 semifinal win over Newark American Little League (July 7).

In the final, Mission responded immediately to Niles-Centerville's two-run first inning: a first-pitch opposite field homerun by lefty leadoff hitter Mark Gaffey. MSJ tacked on three more and led 4-2 after an inning, but Niles tied the game in the third, fell behind 5-4 in the fourth, tied it again with one in the fifth. And then the floodgates opened, with a five-run explosion in the sixth inning - the big blast being a two-run, no-doubt-about-it homer by Jesse Olveira that effectively ended Mission's hopes.

The NCLL Little League All-Star team will represent District 14 in Little League's California Section 3 Little League All-Tournament, hosted by California District 57. Their first game will be in Danville on Saturday, July 16, at 2 p.m. For a complete look at all the Little League Baseball All Star tournaments, log onto the Tri-City Voice Sports website, http://sports.tricityvoice.com.

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